Archive for July, 2013

I saw this during its first West End run, but having been offered a Press Night freebie, I could think of no reason not to see it again upon its return from a national tour. Originally, I thought that the brand of quaint British eccentricity transferred well from screen to stage, the set was wondrous and the visual gags were well choreographed; however I could not understand why a brisk 91 minute film needed to be stretched to over 2 hours plus interval, particularly as it so obviously ran out of steam well before the end. All of these comments apply equally to this re-cast version which contains some very strong performances, except that John Gordon Sinclair seems wrongly cast as the criminal mastermind; he is a skilled and experienced comedy actor, but there is absolutely nothing sinister or menacing about him and, robbed of the darker undertones which this character can bring to the piece, a black comedy is diminished to being just light grey. It might have been expected for the production to be a little more polished by this stage; prop malfunctions can be unavoidable, but Angela Thorne, in the not too challenging role of the old lady, repeatedly fluffed her lines and Ralf Little seemed much too aware that he could get bigger laughs by corpsing than from his material. All that said, this is still a fun show and there is far more to enjoy than there is to dislike.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

The year is 1951, and this is clearly established by newsreel clips (mostly genuine, but with a few additions) at the beginning of this production and between scenes. We see the Korean War, rationing, political debate and, most clearly, we see a world that is changing rapidly and irrevocably. This could have been interpreted as a routine, typically frothy Noel Coward comedy but, by emphasising the play’s themes of class inequality and social change, director Trevor Nunn has made it far more interesting and, in so doing, he has not sacrificed any of the humour. A widowed countess awaits in her palatial home for the return of her only son with his bride-to-be, a Hollywood film star, who happens to be the estranged sister of her maid. The maid insists that she has to leave the house because of the embarrassment that her lowly social status would cause, but the Countess cannot accept this, realising that she is devoted to the maid who has become her closest friend. Together with the butler, the pair devise a plot whereby the maid’s social status will be elevated. It becomes apparent that these three, countess, maid and butler are, in effect, a close-knit family whose affection towards each other is much stronger than the class system that divides them. The 1951 setting is specific, but the message is that it matters more who people are than what pigeon hole they have been placed in and this resonates just as strongly today. At first sight, Patricia Hodge as the Countess seems like typecasting, but, in fact, she develops the character to become much more than just a class stereotype. Her timing and delivery of Coward’s witticisms are immaculate, particularly in early banter with Steven Pacey, playing her nephew. But this is a countess who, although outwardly snobbish, controlling and scheming, has great warmth, making it wholly believable when she confesses to being torn between her instincts and her sense of reason when it comes to class issues. Caroline Quentin is also excellent in the more broadly comic role of the maid, becoming ever more uncomfortable as she feigns her new social status. Rory Bremner, sounding rather like his famous impersonation of John Major, is a constant delight playing the butler, a man who can talk expertly on social and political issues yet professes that, like most people, he “knows nothing and just pretends to know a great deal”; most intriguing are the contradictions in this character’s ideals – he claims that being conservative does not mean having to be Conservative (or perhaps he means it the other way round) and, despite being lower class himself, he is a firm disbeliever in social equality. The nephew comments that he and the Countess would make perfect partners, except of course that they were prevented by birth from ever becoming so. The action all takes place in the library of a country house, which is realised by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s very grand set. Coward’s trademark one-liners appear in abundance and, in a play that is about change, he takes some delightful swipes at changes in the theatre – “a comedy of manners becomes obsolete when there are no longer any manners”. Many bright directorial touches add to the laughter as the show bubbles throughout. Overall, this is a superior production of Coward’s play and it is difficult to imagine it being staged much better.

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photo-105Bucketsful of money have been splashed out on this new musical, which is reflected partly on the stage and partly all over the London Underground, as it is is surely the most aggressively promoted West End Show in living memory. Already a massive Broadway hit, it tells of a group of Mormon missionaries in Uganda and does so with excesses of profane and irreverent humour, covering every taboo subject imaginable and even making light of the plight of poverty-stricken Africa. That no-one seems to take offence (not even Mormons) is little short of a miracle, but this may be due to the fact that the show as a whole has the charm and innocence of a Christmas pantomime. The biggest problem is the sameness of the tunes, but the lyrics are sparklingly witty, the performances are spot-on and each half includes one dazzling song and dance routine that is out of Broadway’s top drawer. Occasionally during the first half, the vulgar jokes become repetitive and the show flags, but the second half is an uninterrupted pleasure, carried through by the sheer exuberance of the brilliant cast. It may not live in the memory too long but this is an occasion to enjoy the moment and remember that, after all, tomorrow is a latter day.

Performance date: 4 July 2013

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

The King’s Head has gained a recent reputation for scaling down major operas to fit into its small space and it now plays home to this new work which could hardly be scaled down any more than it already is. Played on a bare stage, often littered with corpses, and accompanied by just a piano and improvised percussion, it is a minimalist musical, but it showcases some very promising emerging talent. The subject is the murderous rampage of Jack the Ripper, focussing not on the killer but on his five victims. Two pathologists discuss the gory details of the mutilation of each woman as she stands centre stage and recounts her personal story in words and in song. The most obvious musical influence is Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, particularly in the grizzly lyrics of Bones in which the pathologists lead the company, but there are also distinct touches of early Lionel Bart throughout. The overall tone is even more sombre than Sweeney, as is appropriate with the story being drawn from real events. The standard of the music and lyrics is surprisingly high and a uniformly excellent company, in which the two writers themselves appear, does full justice to all of the songs. In the ballad One in a Million, Gemma Brodrick sings of the man she loved and lost; Emma Hook gives a rousing rendition of the catchy A Lady’s Life; Stephanie De Whalley and Carla Turner duet in perfect harmony on the haunting Streetlights; and Sarah Anne Cowell almost stops the show singing the achingly beautiful lullaby Too Alone to her unborn child, building to a crescendo of despair as she realises the hopelessness of its future. In the spectrum of musicals, RIP is about as far removed as it is possible to get from the sort of show designed to pack Drury Lane for a decade. Yet, rated as an hour or so of fringe theatre, it is lovingly crafted, superbly performed and all rather splendid.

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