I Wanna Be Yours (Bush Theatre)

Posted: December 8, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Zia Ahmed      Director: Anna Himali Howard

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My review can currently be seen at: http://www.thereviewshub.com/i-wanna-be-yours-bush-theatre-london/ and will appear here from 11 December.

Performance date: 7 December 2019

Whistle Down the Wind (Union Theatre)

Posted: December 7, 2019 in Theatre

Adaptors: Russell Labey and Richard Taylor      Music and lyrics: Richard Taylor      Director: Sasha Regan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Written in 1989. the Russell Labey/Richard Taylor musical adaptation of Whistle Down the Wind preceded the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman version by some seven years. Neither has proved to be a huge success, but this revival of the earlier, coming at the time of year when the show’s action takes place, at least strikes the right seasonal note.

Mary Hayley Bell’s story was filmed in 1961 with her own daughter, Hayley Mills, already a Disney child star at the time, in the leading role of Cathy. Directed by Bryan Forbes and with a screenplay by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, the film slotted into the new wave of working class realism that was sweeping over British cinema in the early ‘60s and the challenge for Labey and Taylor was to make the storytelling relevant almost 30 years later. Now, three decades further on, director Sasha Regan is reviving a production which she staged originally at the same theatre in 2015, 

Cathy, played here with a clear zest for life by Sadie Levett, is the oldest of three siblings, leading the way for the mischievous Charles (George Hankers) and the inquisitive Nan (Tara Lucas). Their strict father (Stuart Simons) is a widower and they are looked after by their aunt (Fiona Tong) in their farmhouse during a bleak, cold  Lancashire December. When Cathy finds a bearded man (Juan Miralles) hiding in the barn, she immediately decides that he is Jesus returned to Earth and involves the other children in her conspiracy of silence. They are all oblivious to the fact that there is a murderer on the loose in the area, being hunted by police.

The story centres on children’s blurred vision of good and evil, setting childhood innocence against adult cynicism and pitching the blind faith of the young against the hollow faith of their elders. The three children are a joy, but Miralles’ “Jesus’ is a benign figure, lacking the menace to give the drama a sense of danger to contrast with the children’s sense of awe. 

The show is set at a time of post-war austerity in a small community dominated by oppressive Christianity and figures of authority – the policeman, the vicar, the school teacher – drawn strongly in Regan’s production. The children attend Sunday school, perform their dreadful Nativity play and speak of the Mayor of Burnley as if he is a superstar. Their closeted world has a charm which we associate with a bygone age.

The show’s key song, I Don’t Know What They’re Waiting to Hear, is sung beautifully by Miralles, but, otherwise, Taylor’s songs leave us with little to whistle as we leave the theatre on a windy night. Nondescript music and lyrics, particularly in the first act, fall flat when the show needs to be lifted and fail to deliver the stand-out moments that any musical needs.

For once the tiny Union Theatre does not need to pretend to be bigger than it is. This is a small scale show that is well-served by its surroundings. Justin Williams’ plain sets and Hector Murray’s atmospheric lighting respect the story’s simplicity, with Reuben Speed’s costumes looking spot-on for the period. This is a show of low-key pleasures offset by some disappointments.

Performance date: 5 December 2019

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

Candida (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: November 28, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: George Bernard Shaw      Director: Paul Miller

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Paul Miller’s five year tenure as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree Theatre has been marked by programming that contrasts challenging contemporary works and revivals of classics by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan to satisfy traditionalists. Candida is Miller’s fourth production of a play by Shaw, a writer who, elsewhere, seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years, but whose wit and perceptions of social and political issues still reverberate strongly.

Written in 1894, Candida centres on a love triangle in which neither physical attraction nor romance plays very much part. The comedy comes from battles of conflicting ideas: faith versus social justice; honesty versus self-delusion; poetry versus prose. Shaw not so much explodes the values that represent Victorian hypocrisy as nudges them very gently, using the tools of humour and irony. He also satirises the pillars of the establishment and good old “British pluck”. The writer’s reputation for producing plays that are overlong and too wordy is not endorsed here in two hours (including interval) that fly by briskly.

Candida’s husband is the Reverend James Morell, played with brittle self-confidence by Martin Hutson. He has dissociated himself from his father-in-law, Burgess (Michael Simkins in loveable rogue mode), an East End factory owner, because of his exploitation of women workers, but he happily puts out the hand of friendship upon learning that the women have been sacked. Images of Socialist pamphlets with headlines such as “A Plea for Poor Law Reform” appear around Simon Daw’s set design, but they symbolise support for change from Morell in which words are not matched by deeds.

Morell’s rival is 18-year-old Eugene Marchbanks, a poet of aristocratic birth who is Candida’s junior by 15 years. Joseph Potter plays him as an impetuous, lovesick youth, prone to bouts of hysteria and “poetic horror”. The choice between the poet’s flair and vigour and the clergyman’s dedication and reliability are laid before Candida, a lady who turns out to be not as hapless as she at first appears.

There is an air of mischief to Claire Lams’ Candida, who, for most of the first act, appears like a passive bystander to the tussle for her affections. However, this is a Candida who is always in control, as if playfully refereeing a boxing match between two men who are both, in their own ways, inadequate. She proves to be the perfect mouthpiece for the playwright’s feminist sentiments.

Impeccable casting and strong ensemble performances have become trademarks of Miller’s work, Here, Kwaku Mills’ flamboyant junior cleric, Alexander Mill and Sarah Middleton’s prim and devoted secretary, Proserpine Garnett add texture to a production which, in common with the play itself, simply bubbles with wit.

Performance date: 28 November 2019

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

Writers: Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper      Director: Andrew Beckett

⭐️⭐️⭐️

It feels quite liberating to go to a Christmas panto without facing the annual controversy about what is or isn’t fit to serve up for the kids. Above the Stag’s offering is just what it says on the poster – “an adult pantomime”. More specifically, it is “LGBTQ+ friendly”, but there is no reason to regard it as unfriendly to anyone else, except perhaps those people who have been making a fuss this week over a male couple dancing together on Strictly Come Dancing.

The source for this production is Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, which became much more widely known through Walt Disney’s classic 1940 animated film. It tells of puppet-maker Geppetto, who creates the title character and sees him come magically to life. Working from that starting point, writers Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper take the story in all sorts of directions of their own to create a show for which audiences can write the double entendres on their way into the theatre, knowing that no innuendo will be left unturned.

Here, Geppetto, a man, becomes Geppetta, a woman who is, in the best British panto dame traditions, played by a man (Matthew Baldwin). Showing complete command of the bawdy material, Baldwin runs much of the show, ad-libbing freely and connecting with the audience with gay abandon. Geppetta’s sidekick, played by Christy Bellis, Cornetta (not a female ice cream) claims to be the only lesbian in town, although the fairy, Fatima (Dami Olukoya) could have other ideas. The town on the Italian coast is Placenta, of which Geppetta and Cornetta are not natives; they arrived there “after birth”.

Jared Thompson’s Pinocchio comes to life with a beaming smile, eagerly anticipating the pleasures that the world has to offer, starting with Joe (Oli Dickson), a footballer transferred to Placenta from Walsall. Pinocchio is cursed by a proboscis which grows when he tells lies, just as in the original; well not exactly as in the original. In the mayhem that follows, the foxy Figaro (Christopher Lane) is a very hissable villain, Chianti (Briony Rawle) is a very bolshie cat and Pedro the boatman (Shane Barragan) is a very frustrated suitor of Geppetta.

Andrew Beckett’s lively production tunes in perfectly to the risqué material. Bradfield contributes several original songs, the lyrics of which follow the style of a script that seems to work on the principle of raising a laugh around once every 30 seconds. Some of the gags are topical, or at least, as admitted by Geppetta, they were topical when the script was finished in August. Otherwise, the humour is one-note and this becomes a little wearing, particularly when, on press night, the show went on for almost three hours (including interval). Some trimming is definitely needed.

It is all too easy to find flaws, but what is the point in analysing a show like this too deeply? It is what it is – harmless fun, frolics and filth. Oh yes it is!

Performance date: 22 November 2019

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

Writer: William Shakespeare      Director: Justin Audibert

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Some plays struggle to stand the test of time. In the not so distant past, The Taming of the Shrew could be seen almost constantly, almost everywhere, but now it has been eclipsed by the much tamer Much Ado About Nothing as the Shakespearean romcom of choice. …Shrew may now be better known as the play within a musical in Kiss Me Kate, which distances itself from what modern audiences could regard as the Bard’s most poisonous notions.

The problem is that misogyny is drilled deep into the heart of the tale of how the vigorously macho Petruchio takes the ill-tempered, shrewish Katherina and forcefully tames her into becoming his dutiful and obedient wife. In the age of feminism, it is hard to make the play either palatable or funny, but director Justin Audibert comes up with a possible solution – gender reversal. Presumably, it is seen as okay for a wife to tether and starve her husband into submission, but not the other way round.

In this version, we see a slightly angry wimp, Katherine (Joseph Arkley) being brought to heel by Petruchia (Claire Price), a butch dominatrix. Saddled with a name like “Kate”, perhaps a man has the right to be angry and, cursed by a dreadful, untameable hairstyle, perhaps a lady can be forgiven for needing someone to take it out on. Yes, of course, one of the  main points of this production is to show up gender stereotyping for the nonsense that it is, but Audibert seems to forget that the comedy in Shakespeare’s original was actually  founded on gender stereotyping. By jettisoning it and not replacing it with something that makes sense, the production robs key scenes, such as the marriage proposal and the wedding night, of all their humour.

Audibert’s handsomely mounted production has an unconventional approach, but a very conventional look. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ elegant single set and Hannah Clark’s lavish period costumes belong to 16/17th Century Italy and music from a seven-piece band adds an air of jollity. Happily, the sub-plots and the secondary characters, also gender reversed, work much better than the central story.

The original version has Kate’s sweet natured younger sister, Bianca fending off multiple suitors. Here, his brother, James Cooney’s effeminate fop, Bianco is, for reasons that are not obvious, their target. Leading the pack is Lucentia (Emily Johnstone), aided by her servants, the over-`zealous Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and the over-harassed Blondella (Amy Trigg). They make the chase fun, even though some of the visual comedy occasionally feels over-played.

Most inspired among the re-gendering is the transition of a bunch of dull, anxious male elders into a gathering of clucking hens, who display a variety of walks that are silly enough to make John Cleese feel proud. Amanda Harris’s Baptista, Sophie Stanton’s Gremia and Melody Brown’s Vincentia are all so delightful that we wonder why Shakespeare himself did not create the characters in this way.

Audibert’s reinvention is a curate’s egg, good only in parts. It sets out to examine and redefine gender roles, but too much of it ends up feeling gimmicky rather than revelatory. The question as to whether this play can ever be staged effectively in the 21st Century remains largely unanswered.

Performance date: 7 November 2019

Photo: Ikin Yum

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

Writer: Arthur Miller      Co-directors: Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Young Vic’s revival of Death of a Salesman earlier this year was widely praised for breathing fresh life into a classic, thought by many to be among the greatest plays of the 20th Century. Yet the title does not lie and, for all the production’s touches of brilliance, there is nothing that could have been done to make Arthur Miller’s modern tragedy uplifting. For this reason, it seems like a brave call to install it over the Christmas Season in the Piccadilly Theatre, a venue which normally plays host to crowd pleasing musicals.

Miller’s play was first seen on Broadway in 1949, two years after his All My Sons, also revived in London this year, and there are notable similarities. Both plays begin with families seemingly consisting of a dominant, solid father, a warm, devoted mother and two upstanding grown sons. In both, Miller puts America’s patriarchal society under a microscope, finds the fault lines in the family structures and slowly demolishes them.  Both plays reach the same, seemingly unavoidable conclusion.

Wendell Pierce’s Willy Loman is an American Everyman. He is proud, arrogant, entering his 60s and prone to delusions which suppress his disappointment at a life of failed ambitions and missed opportunities. He is the rock of his family, but we learn that, even as the play begins, he is already utterly broken. From his Brooklyn home, he travels throughout the Eastern United States, achieving diminishing sales for an uncaring boss (Matthew Seadon-Young), who has changed his employment terms to commission only. On the bright side, his 25-year mortgage is close to being paid off and payments on his fridge are due to end, albeit, sadly, just after it has stopped working.

His wife is Linda, played as a long suffering, never complaining homemaker by Sharon D Clarke. She tolerates verbal abuse from her husband and arbitrates in arguments between him and their older son, Biff (an explosive performance from Sopé Dirisu) who has just returned to the city which he hates from working as a farmer in Texas. Biff is the son in whom Willy invests all his hopes for the future, overlooking the extent to which his own fallibilities have undermined those hopes.

The younger son is “Happy”, the nickname reflecting his sunny disposition and Natey Jones makes him a carefree joker, a womaniser who seems unlikely to realise his very limited potential. Willy looks enviously at his successful, benevolent neighbour, Charley (Trevor Cooper) whose son, Bernard (Ian Bonar) has become a lawyer. As the spectre of failure engulfs him, Willy has imagined conversations with his dead brother (Joseph Mydell) and becomes haunted by incidents from his past.

Co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, whose previous collaborations include Angels in America at the National Theatre, do not attempt to lighten the pain of what unfolds, but their production accentuates the humour in Miller’s writing and smoothes out the drama’s flow so that the running time feels less than the actual three and a quarter hours (including interval). 

Anna Fleischle’s set designs achieve the overall feel of a Brooklyn family home, lit dimly by Aideen Malone, while incorporating the flexibility to divide the stage into segments, thereby allowing swift scene transitions and overlaps between illusions or flashbacks and reality. An unexpected treat comes with the subtle use of music and, yes, we get to hear Clarke’s magical singing voice. Composer and Musical Director Femi Temowo uses soft jazz and gospel styles to build atmosphere and heighten drama. 

For sure this is no pantomime, but as a showcase for incisive writing and magnificent acting, it is a rich, rewarding experience and the perfect antidote to an excess of festive cheer.

Performance date: 4 November 2019

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

High Fidelity (Turbine Theatre)

Posted: November 3, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire      Music: Tom Kitt      Lyrics: Amanda Green      Director: Tom Jackson Greaves

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

A brand new British-based musical is the brave choice for the second production at the brand new Turbine Theatre, located in the shadow of the disused Battersea Power Station. But can the show generate sufficient spark to reignite flames in the area and, perhaps, beyond?

Taken from Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel of the same title, High Fidelity’s story of Rob, an overgrown boy dragging himself kicking and screaming into manhood, has a familiar feel. The show gets off to a cracking start with the company belting out The Last Real Record Store (on Earth); Rob owns the store which targets types (male) who value a rare Sex Pistols vinyl disc over meaningful relationships with types (female) who prefer Celine Dion.

Oliver Ormson’s Rob is more boy than man, possessing enough endearing cheekiness to obscure the character’s mild misogyny. Nonetheless, it is not only the plentiful 1990s cultural references that give David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of the novel a dated feel. A bigger problem for him is the novel’s shortage of plot, which makes the show start to feel stretched when it gets into its second act.

Rob’s geeky sidekicks at the shop in Holloway, North London are the timid Scouser Dick (Carl Au) and Barry (Robbie Durham), who aims to form a band even though he plays no instruments. They all speak in lists of five or ten, but it seems that fidelity comes fairly low on the list of Rob’s qualities with the appearance of five former girlfriends who come back to haunt him at regular intervals throughout the show.

Hornby’s boys are an amusing bunch. He shows less flair in developing his girls, although Shanay Holmes does well to flesh out Laura, the girlfriend who walks out on Rob for the slimy Ian (Robert Tripolino) and Bobble Little is a formidable presence as Liz, confidante to both of the parted lovers. An 11-strong company fills the small stage to the point of overflowing into the audience, the clutter of David Shields’ set design for the record store, limiting their space still further.

The challenge for composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green is to come up with original songs that bear comparison with the iconic tracks which are so adored by the show’s main characters. The results are more hit than miss, but they seem to have listened to Rob’s advice on compiling the perfect mix tape by introducing varieties of style among their predominantly rock numbers. She Goes is a heartfelt soul ballad with which Little stops the show and Eleanor Kane, as a club singer, taps into Country music for Ready to Settle. Other highlights include Rob’s dream duets with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, both played by Joshua Deever.

Tom Jackson Greaves’ high energy production, enlivened by his clever choreography, goes a long way to smoothing out some of the show’s rough edges and glossing over the slightness and predictability of the storyline.  Perhaps this is best looked at as a work in progress and, if so, the show has enough potential to go further after this run.

Performance date: 2 November 2019

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