Archive for December, 2013

A curious excursion to the fringes of London’s East End leads to a trilogy of one-act Eugene O’Neill plays which, individually, may be of little interest to anyone other than drama degree students, but, collectively, paint a vivid and disturbing picture of Chicago during the Depression era. The building, an antiquated meeting hall with ornate decor, looks as if it belongs in the 1920s and the audience is greeted on arrival with a band playing original jazz/blues music composed by Alex Baranowski. Music is also played between the plays, with vocals by Nicola Hughes. All three plays are set in squalid urban accommodation with the train of the collective title rumbling overhead. The first is Before Breakfast, a monologue performed by Ruth Wilson as a dutiful wife lecturing her husband, who is in the next room, about his laziness and infidelity. It is directed by Sam Yates, as is The Web, in which an alcoholic, consumptive prostitute (Wilson again) struggles to care for her baby in the face of aggression from her pimp (Zubin Varla); she finds brief hope in the form of a bank robber who is on the run (Simon Coombs). The final play, The Dreamy Kid, is directed by Wilson and involves a dying mother (Hughes) who presents her son (Coombs again), a killer on the run, with the dilemma of either staying by her bedside and facing certain arrest or escaping to possible freedom. The plays are intense, atmospheric and superbly acted, the cumulative effect of them being nightmarish. Cramped, wooden seats (at West End prices) do not provide the most comfortable way to spend 90 minutes, but, nonetheless, the venue enhances the experience. 2013’s theatregoing ends on a high note.

fascinating aida_0This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

If anyone ever wondered what the St Trinians schoolgirls could have turned into in later life, Fascinating Aida may provide the answer. These three ladies are elegant, mischievous and, in the nicest possible way, extremely rude. Now into their 31st year, they have aged like the finest wine, honing their writing and performing skills to the point of near perfection. Founder member Dillie Keane is still going strong, together with Adele Anderson, who joined a year later, and relative newcomer Liza Pulman, who has been with the trio for just under ten years. Charm Offensive is a show that is certainly charming, but it is only likely to be offensive to the most diehard amongst prudes. Somehow language that might be shunned even on a building site becomes perfectly acceptable when uttered by sophisticated ladies in evening dresses who have reached their prime years. The show is a mixture of old and new. Greatest hits such as Dogging and Cheap Flights are almost obligatory, as is the Bulgarian song cycle, except that the lyrics of each of the short songs have been updated to make cutting references to the very latest news headlines. To prove themselves bang up to date, the ladies chant Facebook Blues and then Keane, who is now beginning to look like a very young Margaret Rutherford, re- brands herself as “Keane Dillie” to perform an energetic rap number. Later, she adopts the guise of a French chanteuse to ask Where Is Your Johnny Now, Johnny, which is very risqué but completely hilarious. Topicality is high on the agenda, as the ladies become bankers’ wives pondering the dilemma of how to spend “his” bonus, they reflect on how their generation of baby boomers has ruined everything for succeeding generations and they lament the Eurozone crisis to the accompaniment of traditional Greek music. The centrepiece of this show lands a hefty swipe on the face of the British Education system and informs us that OFSTED is an acronym for “”Overpaid F***ers Shafting Teachers Every Day”. The evening is not just a collection of comic numbers and crude jokes. Several wistful and poignant songs are blended skilfully into the mix to vary the mood. Look Mummy, No Hands is a lovely celebration of mother/daughter relationships and Old Home reflects nostalgically on places we have lived in but left behind. Pulman, who possesses a crystal clear soprano voice, sings of a first date between two divorcees and Anderson gives a deeply personal account of gender change. There are times during these more serious moments when the lyrics are so delicate and the rhymes so precise that it is possible to wonder whether the songs are really original or taken perhaps from a Sondheim musical. Sending the audience home for the festive season, the ladies warn Try Not To Be A **** At Christmas, but, sadly, lack of BBC airplay may ruin it’s chances of ever being a contender for Christmas number one. As a couple of hours of cabaret, this is about as good as it can get, at least until Fascinating Aida come up with their next show.

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stephen wardThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

In 1963, when the Kennedy assassination rocked the world, Britain was still shaking from the seismic effects of the Profumo Scandal. John Profumo, Minister of War, had been sharing a mistress, Christine Keeler, with a naval attache at the Soviet Embassy, causing justifiable security concerns when Cold War paranoia was at its height. The MacMillan Government was destabilised, but, perhaps more significantly, the prurient and frenzied media coverage of the affair challenged the British Establishment and triggered a fundamental reappraisal of the values in our society. These events form the backdrop to this new musical which reunites composer Andrew Lloyd Webber with writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black, the team responsible for Sunset Boulevard. Stephen Ward, an osteopath with a long list of celebrity clients, got caught in the maelstrom by introducing Profumo to Keeler, but he was no more than a facilitator, an organiser of social occasions, albeit ones that flouted moral conventions of the day. Despite only playing a peripheral role, it was Ward who became the chief victim of the Establishment backlash, the scapegoat or, as described in the title of the show’s keynote song, Human Sacrifice. The story is told drily, rather like a dramatised documentary, feeding us much factual detail but rarely drawing us in emotionally. It is not entirely sung through, but substantially so. Richard Eyre’s imaginative direction brings a brisk pace to the first half, well assisted by Rob Howell’s set designs which use simple scenery and projections, changing rapidly behind swishing curtains. The second half is more static but includes an impressive courtroom scene in which the Judge towers above the accused Ward, now belittled by the Establishment that he has crossed. In the title role, Alexander Hanson is on stage for almost the entire first half and much of the second. His Ward is a suave libertine, not comprehending the significance of what is happening around him; he makes him aloof and largely unsympathetic, rather as Ward himself appeared in newsreel footage. Charlotte Spencer gives us a feisty Keeler, transforming from an innocent girl, dragged from her home in a converted railway carriage, to a much less innocent woman mingling with the high and mighty. Keeler’s friend, Mandy Rice-Davies, is played by Charlotte Blackledge as a mouthy tart, completely at ease with her promiscuous lifestyle. These events coincided with a momentous period for British music, as the Beatles made their breakthrough. Tribute is paid to the Fab Four’s early style with the delightful 1963, on which Christine and Mandy duet, and there are other dashes of 60s pop, even some reggae. However, the overall musical style is still very distinctively Lloyd Webber and, even if over-familiarity with that style dampens enthusiasm, there can never be any doubting the composer’s gift for conjuring up lovely melodies, which are plentiful here. Evita showed that Lloyd Webber’s music, even in its most romantic form, could fuse with a cynical, political storyline and the same trick is pulled off again. The lyrics merge seamlessly with the book, advancing the story, developing the characters and throwing in fascinating background information. Diners in a high class restaurant, including Lord Boothby, the Kray twins and Peter Rachman, burst into You’ve Never Had It So Good, echoing Harold MacMillan’s famous boast, but turning it into a celebration of their own hedonism. We then move to Lord Astor’s country estate where Ward sings Manipulation, at first explaining osteopathy, but the lyrics turn quickly to refer to nefarious dealings and widespread corruption; during this song, a sedate dinner party transforms into a bizarre orgy, which is beautifully choreographed by Stephen Mear. These scenes are gems, displaying the decadence of a fetid social elite that was soon to enter its dying days. The second half charts Ward’s downfall and it is then that the pace slackens and Lloyd Webber’s recurring musical themes begin to grate. Nonetheless, there are some outstanding sequences. It comes as a surprise to see a name as big as Joanna Riding cast in the tiny role of Valerie Hobson (Mrs Profumo) but the reason becomes clear when, late on, I’m Hopeless When It Comes To You falls to her and she does it full justice. It is one of the show’s two great songs, the other being the climactic Too Close To The Flame which Hanson delivers with tremendous power, bringing a lump to the throat, if not quite a tear to the eye. Stephen Ward is a production with little humour, no likeable characters, little visual spectacle and no obvious wow factor, yet it has degrees of intelligence and ambition that set it apart from most other musicals. Certainly the show has its flaws, but it still stands as a very considerable achievement.

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jumpers for goalpostsTom Wells’ little romantic comedy seems to have been gaining momentum as it has toured over the last few months and it has now found the perfect home here. The Bush has the look and feel of a sports changing room, except that the tiled walls have been replaced on three sides by tiered seating. This gives a realistic touch to a play in which authenticity does not figure prominently. Barely United is one of four teams in the Hull Gay and Lesbian 5-a-side football league; the team includes a token straight and a woman, rejected by the lesbian team and acting as coach. The one act play simply features the interplay between five quirky characters over their six-match season; Viv (Vivienne Gibbs), the coach, is drawn towards Joe (Matt Sutton), an overweight widower; “Beardy” Geoff (Andy Rush) is a weak-willed busker; the two youngsters, assistant coach Danny (Jamie Samuel) and newcomer Luke (Philip Duguid-McQuillan) struggle awkwardly to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of them forming a relationship. All of the performances are generally well judged, striking the correct balance between comedy and pathos. The innocent and romantic tone is very reminiscent of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing and, just as in that play, there are many times when the sugary cuteness is laid on too thickly. Although the harsh reality of life occasionally intrudes it is always in a “bottle half full” manner. The options are either to cringe for 90 minutes or to go along with it, laughing and crying at each unlikely turn and, once the latter decision has been made (who wants to be a Scrooge at Christmas anyway?) the whole evening becomes an absolute delight. Judging by the cheering at the end, 99% or more of the audience made the same decision and quite right too.

photo-80This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

The biggest challenge facing the writers of The Duck House must have been to create a comedy that would be funnier than the real life farce that it draws from. In 2009, the nation was enthralled and appalled as, day by day, more details were revealed of expenses claims by Members of Parliament, some of whom seemed to think that it was more important to shelter ducks from weather that is, proverbially, nice for them than to make sure that taxpayers’ money was spent correctly. The curtain rises to reveal Robert Houston MP and his wife guzzling expensive Champagne to the sound of quacking outside their French window. He is on the verge of defecting from Labour, lured by the offer of a ministerial post in a future Government, she is dreaming of the luxurious lifestyle of a Tory wife, no longer having to feign enjoyment of scampi and chips. To seal the deal, they need to impress a Tory party grandee who is about to visit, but the expenses scandal is breaking and all evidence of unjustifiable claims needs to be hidden. Needless to say, the evidence is substantial. At the beginning, the play is styled as political satire of the mildest kind, bringing a torrent of rapid-fire jokes, most of them very funny. There is a recurring gag in which someone in the 2013 headlines – Andy Coulson, Nigella Lawson, Andrew Mitchell, etc – is referred to as seen in 2009. Of course, one line gags cannot sustain a full-length play alone and this play moves on to develop into a Feydeau-like farce with rapid entrances and exits, outrageous costumes and general mayhem. The greed, hypocrisy and deceitfulness of the characters are exposed whilst they are put rightly to ridicule. Political satire and broad farce are styles of comedy that do not aways sit comfortably together in this play and reactions at this performance could suggest that each of the two styles appeals to different audiences. The production has weak moments, particularly during slapstick routines, which occasionally feel laboured, predictable and incongruous to the context of the play. Nonetheless, accepting that there are a few points when the production misfires, the laugh-out-loud moments outnumber them by far. Leading a top-notch cast, Ben Miller is perfect as the hapless MP, growing increasingly frenzied as the extent of his involvement in the scandal becomes ever clearer; he consoles himself that at least he does not have a moat, until he is told that there is one surrounding his duck house. Nancy Allen shines as a socialite who loathes socialism, as does Simon Shepherd as a top Tory who is arrogant and pompous until a secret involving how he makes use of the Treaty of Lisbon is revealed. Also excellent are James Musgrave as the MP’s wayward son and Diana Vickers as his girlfriend from Burnley, who has paid off her student loan with earnings from a novel form of acupuncture. A maid is obligatory in most farces, so here we have a Russian one with ultra right wing political views, splendidly played by Debbie Chazen. Terry Johnson is a director with vast experience in comedy and he keeps things moving with flair and precision. Lez Brotherston has designed two sets, both striking but in different ways; Act I takes place in the opulent living room of the MP’s house in the London stockbroker belt; Act II moves to the MP’s “second home”, a London flat which he has never previously visited, now daubed with graffiti and stripped of the furniture paid for by taxpayers, then sold to pay off his son’s gambling debts. From the Palace of Westminster, politicians need only take a short walk along Whitehall and then right into the Strand to find the Vaudeville Theatre. En route they could cast a glance or two sideways to see the homeless huddled in spaces barely wider than a typical duck house and ponder on the irony. Maybe a few of them will feel chastened by this play, but, whilst, leaving the real world behind for a couple of hours, the rest of us can enjoy a jolly good laugh.

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Titles can be misleading, so it needs to be stated that this is not a stage adaptation of the Disney cartoon nor is it a Christmas pantomime version of the famous fairy tale. It is in fact a thoughtful study of the links between the story of The Little Mermaid and events in the life of its creator, Hans Christian Andersen. Coming from the Blind Tiger Theatre Company, the production which is performed by actor/musicians, uses music inspired by Danish folk songs and draws from journals, letters and diaries written by Andersen himself. In the fairy tale, The Little Mermaid is cast out from her home in the sea and, alone onshore, she craves love from the prince who can never be hers. In real life, Andersen is parted from his family in rural Denmark to live in Copenhagen, where he forms fraternal bonds with Edvard, the son of his patron, but has to accept that his love for Edvard can never be fully reciprocated. The two stories are related as reflections by an elderly Andersen (James Earl Adair) and their progress is deliberate and unhurried, making the production extremely slow to get into its stride. In the early stages, there is hardly any humour, a little music but not enough of it and the staging is rather static. However, when the play begins to grip, it is the real life story that takes the strongest hold and this is largely due to an endearing performance by Anthony Pinnick as the young Andersen; he captures perfectly the spirit of a creative idealist, confused by his emotions and unable to put down roots in the real world. Stu Mansell, playing both Edvard and the Prince in the fairy tale creates two characters that are more grounded but always sympathetic. Claire Francis makes a delightful Little Mermaid, contrasting with Erla Brynjarsdottir’s splendidly spiteful Sea Witch, whilst Jennifer Johnson sings sweetly as the Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind and provides some brief comedy as an insolent maid. The writing, which uses Andersen’s material verbatim in many instances, has a lovely lyrical quality. Being slow, wordy and without spectacle, this is not a show that is likely to appeal to younger children. However, taken as an antidote to the traditional feasts of family fun on offer at this time of year, the production has got a lot to offer. The Little Mermaid is always an enchanting tale, but, with the additional dimension that it is given here, it becomes a wistful hymn to the pain of unrequited love. A Christmas show with a difference.

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photo-87Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s dark psychological thriller, Craig Warner’s play concerns the meeting of Guy, a promising architect and Bruno, a feckless rich playboy, on a journey through Texas. Guy’s life is being hampered by a troublesome wife and Bruno needs rid of his millionaire father, so the latter develops the idea that the two will swap murders meaning that, with no connection between killers and victims, detection would be impossible. Guy is always reluctant, but inevitably, the two become more and more entangled together, with increasingly sinister consequences. It needs to be stated that Robert Allan Ackerman’s’s production is quite brilliantly staged, with sets rapidly revolving to ensure a swift pace, lighting which picks out what we need to see but leaves the rest of the stage in creepy darkness and a spectacular, technically accomplished climax. At this performance, Antony Jardine, an understudy, played Bruno and was very effective in bringing out the menace in an immature and weak man in the grips of a doting, drunken mother. Sadly, Lawrence Fox, not an understudy, is feeble as Guy, capturing none of the magnetism that draws the other characters to him and failing to convince as a man tormented by guilt. The always reliable Imogen Stubbs relishes the role of the mother and the other performances are generally adequate, allowing for some dodgy American accents. Translating a plot-driven piece to theatre can often be tricky, but this production’s big failure is in showing us any reason why this story needed to be put on the stage at all. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film varied much in detail from Highsmith’s original novel, but it was able to bring out the complex Freudian themes and even allude to the gay subtext, albeit restrained by the conventions of the 1950s. No longer subject to such constraints, this version fails abjectly to delve any deeper into the psychology or to develop most of the characters into much more than stereotypes. Therefore, we are left with plot, visual spectacle and little else, resulting in an experience that moves at lightning speed but is, at the same time, tedious and empty.