Archive for May, 2014

photo-66After four extraordinary successes, everyone now takes notice when Southwark Playhouse puts on an American musical. This is a Tony award winner from five years ago, set in the largely Hispanic district of New York City, Washington Heights, and amongst first and second generation immigrants from Puerto Rico – the young and the not so young, cab company and coffee stand owners, an ice cream seller, a hairdresser, a promising student, etc. We follow them through life’s trials and tribulations – financial hardship, a lottery win, courtship,  celebration, death and a power cut. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tuneful score owes little to traditional Broadway and a lot to Latino artists such as Gloria Estefan, thereby making the songs refreshingly different and perfect for the exhilarating and colourful dance routines which crop up at regular intervals throughout the show. Directed by Luke Sheppard and choreographed by Drew McOnie, the mostly young company throw themselves across every inch of the small stage with energy and vigour; if the pace ever lets up, they have the simple answer – bring on the dancers. Miranda’s lyrics work well with Quiara Alegria Hodes’ book, both being lively and witty, but the only real problem lies with the narrative, which is too scattered and riddled with cliches; the stories manage to hold our interest for the first half, but fall away badly after the interval, leaving only the characters and the songs to drive a show which ends in slight disappointment that it did not turn out to be quite as good as it had promised. There are some terrific performances, most notably from Sam Mackay as the constantly rapping Usnavi (named after the ship that brought him to America) and seasoned players such as David Bedella and Eve Polycarpou are on hand to preside over the youngsters. However, in general, the script does not allow the performances to be developed into more than delightful cameos. As with other musicals staged by Southwark Playhouse, here and at its previous location, the big thrill is being able to sit in such close proximity to the performers for a flat-out song and dance production. This show is far from faultless, but it provides entertainment of a pretty high order.

Performance date: 15 May 2014

photo-68Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s reputation preceded him to the Young Vic, but few could have expected anything like this. He has taken Arthur Miller’s play, a masterpiece of modern drama, stripped it down to its bare essentials and rebuilt it piece by piece so that it comes to resemble a spoken opera. Clues that we are in for something special come from the very beginning. With the audience seated on three sides of an all-white oblong stage, a surrounding curtain rises slowly and, to the sound of solemn church music, reveals two men washing after their day’s hard work as longshoremen in 1950s Brooklyn, New York. One of them is Eddie, a legal Italian migrant who lives with his wife (Nicola Walker) and her 17-year-old orphaned niece, Catherine (Phoebe Fox). Their lives are disturbed by the arrival, illegally, of two relatives from Italy who need accommodation. An attraction forms between Catherine and one of them, Rodolpho (Luke Norris) and its growth is matched by that of Eddie’s uncontrollable jealousy. Miller moulds his play from Greek tragedy, with a lawyer acting as the chorus, commenting on events to the audience and to Eddie, the outcome seeming inevitable and unavoidable from the beginning. It is an enormous challenge for any writer and actor to express the emotions of an inarticulate man who cannot even understand them himself. Miller rose to the challenge and now Mark Strong, a hard man in many films, gives what must be a career-defining performance as Eddie. The visceral power, intensity and authenticity displayed by Strong are, at times, staggering. The other performances are also impeccable, but it is the director who is behind making this production of the play stand out from any other; there is no set and only one prop is used throughout the uninterrupted two hours running time; the actors are all barefoot, as if treading on sacred ground; the religious music persists at decreased or increased volumes, accompanied at times of high tension by a slow, soft drum beat. Occasionally, it benefits to look at actors who are peripheral to the scene taking place, in order to observe how they are staying in character and reacting. It seems as if every tiny detail matters to van Hove in his quest to develop and heighten the drama, but taking note of each of the details is impossible whilst we are reeling at their cumulative impact.  The climactic scene sees an unforgettable coup de theatre that is visually shocking, but entirely appropriate to the drama leading up to it. It is still only Spring, but, if London theatre sees anything better than this production during 2014, it will have been a truly blessed year. A shattering experience.

Performance date: 14 May 2014

225450_2_previewThe exterior of a modern double-fronted executive home occupying the entire stage is an imposing sight on entering the Olivier. Then the lights dim, the stage revolves and the whole of Act I takes place indoors. At the interval, the exterior re-appears and then revolves out of sight at the start of Act II, never to be seen again. So why is the National Theatre, which is subsidised out of public funds, wasting money and manpower resources on building a set, for which every one of hundreds of bricks is painted meticulously, when it is not even used in the course of the play? Notwithstanding this, there are no gripes about the ingenious six-room interior set, which trebles up to be three different homes with several scenes taking place concurrently, typical of the style of this play’s writer, Alan Ayckbourn. It was written in the mid-198os and performed on this same stage, with Michael Gambon in the lead, in 1987. It is a satire on greed, materialism and corruption in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, telling how Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay), an upright and totally honest man, takes over a family business from his retiring father-in-law only to find it riddled with criminal malpractices. At first he stands firm and tries to uphold his standards of morality and decency, but he finds himself getting sucked more and more into the mire. The satire is just as biting and relevant now as it was in the 1980’s, but, somehow the play does not seem as consistently funny as it did back then. Ayckbourn built his reputation on his ability to make astute observations on the lifestyles and language of middle class Britain, so can it be that British society has changed in ways that make the playwright’s characters less readily identifiable? If so, then the play will have lost some of the humour arising from recognition of people and situations and, as Ayckbourn’s writing contains little wit of other kinds, it is funny only intermittently and just mildly amusing for the rest of the time. More Ayckbourn is lined up for next week, so it will be interesting to see whether this view holds or is refuted. Adam Penford’s direction, with a capable, non-starry cast, is slick and entertaining. It is difficult to pinpoint anything seriously wrong with this production, except that it never really catches fire.

Performance date: 13 May 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

On an evening of bright sunshine and heavy showers, a rainbow appeared above the Landor as the audience entered for the opening performance of this one-woman show. If the Heavens were signalling their approval, they were right to do so. Sharon Sexton has played Liza Minnelli in this monologue with songs, both on tour and at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but she is bringing it to London for the first time, taking a break from her role in The Commitments in the West End to do so. Telling the story of Minnelli’s life, focussing primarily on the early years, the show begins with black and white footage of Judy Garland introducing her teenage daughter to a television audience, followed by a medley from Gypsy and then Broadway Baby. There is a fair amount of name dropping – Frank Sinatra visited her in hospital on the day she was born, etc – but this is not a simple riches to riches story, as we hear how Liza entered showbiz in the face of opposition from her mother and how she was forced to clamber down the ladder before climbing back up. She tells of sleeping rough in Central Park and of being rejected for roles, most ironically for the lead in the Broadway production of Cabaret. After that, broke and desperate for work, she consoled herself by buying a Cartier watch, exemplifying her philosophy that “reality is something you rise above”. Sexton does not impersonate Minnelli, she becomes her, digging deep to find the real person beneath the flamboyant, glitzy facade. Her exaggerated movements, her nervous giggle, her self deprecating humour all reveal a woman who is caught by the limelight, yet strangely vulnerable, living the life that she leads because she has never known any other way. She apologises for not being able to volunteer bad news about her childhood, recalling idyllic moments when her playtime was directed by Vincente Minnelli and she causes howls of laughter when she describes a show at the London Palladium in which she and her mother battled to upstage each other. As she sang her solo, she saw a proud mother standing in the wings and, then, when it finished, she saw not her mother but Judy Garland, a fierce rival, standing on stage. At Garland’s funeral wake, Liza took her first valium, to begin a downward spiral of pills to counter other pills and so on, the anguish of which is expressed in a rendering of Sondheim’s Losing My Mind, bringing tears to the eyes of both the performer and the audience. Otherwise, regretful glances from Sexton are enough to tell of the drug and liquor problems and of the failed marriages. This is essentially an upbeat celebration of the life of a survivor and Sexton proves it with her glorious versions of the big numbers from Minnelli’s biggest success, the film version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Carefully written and with well chosen songs, this is a production which makes 80 minutes just fly by. Above all else, it is a triumph for Sharon Sexton’s performance, a real tour de force and even Liza Minnelli herself would be hard pressed to top it.

Performance date: 12 May 2014

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photo-64It is now over 30 years since the Royal Shakespeare Company performed their revolutionary and now legendary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby on this same stage and nothing like it has been seen since. Until now. In the intervening years, the Company has had an unsuccessful spell in the Barbican followed by a prolonged absence from the capital, so it is fitting that a return to their spiritual London home should be marked by another massive adaptation from a novel, actually two novels by Hilary Mantel, both of them winners of the Booker Prize. Together, the plays, adapted by Mike Poulton, run for almost six hours, so they are huge in every sense, a vivid and detailed examination of political manoeuvring in the Court of King Henry VIII. The history of this period is well known and there have been many dramatised versions, but Mantel is more concerned with the characters than the history, interweaving fact with fiction and making the people of Tudor England very modern in their language and behaviour. Their conversations include moans about the British weather and ideas about what to eat for dinner as well as discussions over Court gossip and plots for their next moves. Thomas seems to have been a very popular name in these times and, at the centre of the plays is Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), a blacksmith’s son who has been a mercenary, a financier, a lawyer and is now emerging as a politician. At first, he is a “fixer”, a sort of Tudor Arthur Daley, for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson), who is depicted here as avuncular and with an acerbic wit. When Wolsey falls out of favour with the Court, he moves on and eventually becomes right hand man to the King himself. Whilst being streetwise and ruthless, Cromwell is also a devoted family man and unswerving in his loyalty to his friends, particularly Wolsey. Thus Mantel paints a picture in which decency and honesty co-exist with intrigue and betrayal. It is these contradictions in the story, but more specifically in the character of Cromwell, that make the plays so spellbinding and Miles’ performance is awesome in both the intimate and the epic (he is rarely off stage for the duration) senses. Other characters also defy conventional portrayals: Henry (Nathaniel Parker) is given much more depth and complexity than usual; Sir Thomas More (John Ramm), far from being the saint of A Man for All Seasons, is a near-demented religious zealot; and Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) is no innocent victim, more a manipulative power-seeker who cares for her dog more than her husband or her (allegedly) many lovers. The performances are all so strong that Hilary Mantel has stated publicly that the characters as played here are now fixed firmly in her head as she writes the next sequel. Revisionist history this certainly is, but there is never any doubt that these plays are intended to be entertaining more than educational and they almost always succeed with that aim. That parts of the second play are less gripping than the first could be due to the novelty of their presentation and structure having worn off slightly, or to events seeming repetitive, or maybe just to audience fatigue. Nonetheless, the two plays do not stand well alone and no-one having seen Wolf Hall is likely to be able to resist its sequel. The actors are lavishly costumed, but the open stage is uncluttered with props, allowing Jeremy Herrin’s production to flow smoothly throughout. After so many positive comments, it is sad to end with a complaint, but £6 is excessive for a theatre programme and separate programmes for the two plays (completely unnecessary as the casts and production teams are the same) is pushing it much too far.

Performance date: 10 May 2014

photo-63Describing his work as a “future history play”, Mike Bartlett explores a time in which our beloved monarch of more than 60 years will no longer be with us, a time of confusion for the nation and of collective loss of identity. Daringly, he adopts the structure of a Shakespeare history play and writes in verse, moulding several of the characters to resemble those in the Bard’s plays – Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) begins as a dithering, well intentioned Richard II, miscalculating his power base, and then progresses to become a half-mad Lear; the wayward and dissolute Harry (Richard Goulding) is, obviously, Hal; most tellingly, Katharine (Lydia Wilson) is Lady Macbeth, plotting and scheming the path to the throne for her upright and ultimately ruthless husband, William (Oliver Chris). A not so merry wife of Windsor, Camilla (Margot Lester), looks on aghast and there is even a Palace ghost (Diana of course). The monarchy begins to unravel when the as yet uncrowned new King refuses to sign a Press Regulation Bill as a matter of principle, notwithstanding the fact that, as the (Labour) Prime Minister points out, he has, throughout his life, been one of the greatest victims of the rampant Press. Although he knew it all along, the King is now faced with the reality of the job which he has waited for more than half a century to take up, not being a job at all. He is just a meaningless, powerless figurehead. Inevitably a constitutional crisis ensues. Although plenty of good jokes are thrown in, this is not a comedy, but a serious examination of a quirky system of Government and a constitution that does not even exist. It is played out with all the dramatic force and pageantry associated with Shakespeare’s histories and, at just under three hours, it is of similar length. All that is missing are the bloody battles. Rupert Goold mounts a grand and impeccably acted production, buoyed by the confidence of knowing that neither he nor his Almeida seems capable of doing anything wrong right now. This is another significant hit for them, bold, different and riveting. The play paints an alarming and plausible picture of what could lie ahead in, hopefully, the not too near future. God Save the Queen!

Performance date: 9 May 2014

YesterdaysTomorrow1-Photo-by-Invisible-DarknessThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Gene David Kirk never quite gets round to explaining the significance of the title of his new one act play. Does he mean “today”? If so, it is good to report that the obliqueness in the title is not replicated in the writing, which is vivid, descriptive and, at times, even poetic. The writer draws on his own experiences in the military and bases his play on actual events, a collection of memories and feelings which he binds together not to tell a single coherent story, but to convey haunting images and contrasting emotions. The setting is an unspecified far away trouble spot where Britain is part of a United Nations peace keeping force. Ian (Ben Carpenter) is a young officer and John (Matthew Schmolle) belongs to the lower ranks. We first meet them as they both describe to the audience the same horrific incident as they would have seen it, interrupting and talking over each other. This proves to be a very effective device for establishing the characters, their backgrounds and their differing perceptions. Ian is middle class, well educated and sensitive, John is working class with a more down-to-earth outlook. The performances of both actors fit the profiles perfectly. What we do not realise at first is the connection between the two, but fleeting touches and affectionate glances begin to reveal the nature of their friendship and then, in the play’s most moving scene, Ian finds a letter amongst John’s belongings in which he expresses feelings that he cannot bring himself to speak. Ian does not reveal that he has seen the letter, but simply writes at the bottom of it “me too and then some”. The subtlety with which the relationship is developed magnifies its impact immeasurably. Institutional homophobia in the military is touched upon in the character of Simon (Nicholas Waters), who callously demeans local women for his own gratification and boasts about it to Paul (River Hawkins), a rookie that he takes under his wing. However, this is not a play with a political agenda and exposing bigotry is incidental to its purpose. It becomes clear that the writer’s real aim is to contrast the tenderness of the affection between his two central characters with the dehumanising brutality of modern warfare. The contrast is stark and, helped by imaginative staging, the play achieves its objectives fully. This production delivers a riveting 70 minutes of theatre. In choosing his own play to begin his tenure as Artistic Director of the Drayton Arms, Gene David Kirk has done well. Good luck to him for the future.

Performance date: 8 May 2014

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photo-69With new British musicals dropping like flies in the West End lately, surely the last thing needed to replace one of them is yet another so-called juke box show, regurgitating old hits that the audience can hum as they enter the theatre. Well actually, if that show is this one, it is exactly what is needed. Sometimes you go to the theatre knowing beforehand that you are going to love what you see and here we have an example of that which never disappoints, not for a single second. The Kinks may have fallen a little way behind the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who in the Premier League of 1960s bands, but when it comes to stage adaptations of musicians’ lives and music, Sunny Afternoon is up there vying for the title alongside Jersey Boys. Yes, it really is that good! The secret lies in the songs’ lyrics, written, along with the music, by Ray Davies (played brilliantly here by John Dalgleish) who, we are told, thinks in songs; thus, his lyrics, often satirical and very amusing, form a commentary on life as he sees it and the songs fit naturally into the show’s narrative. The rags-to-riches story contains little that is new, but it is told with such freshness and verve that it feels new. Four working class lads from Muswell Hill jump onto the 60s pop bandwagon, make it big, get exploited by management, music publishers and record companies, have a disastrous tour in the US which results in them getting banned from the country, argue and fight with each other and eventually come to terms with their success. In another life, Ray could have been an office clerk, more the stay-at-home type, but he is haunted by the sudden death of his sister Rene when he was 13, on the same day that she gave him his first guitar and he is determined to make it as a musician for her sake. His younger brother Dave (another great performance by George Maguire), just 16 when it all starts, is the polar opposite – a wild partygoer with a fondness for cross dressing (although not, apparently, the inspiration for Lola). Pete (Ned Derrington) and Mick (Adam Sopp) make up the band. A ramp stretching right into the centre of the stalls sends out a clear message that these guys belong to the people and extends an already large stage to give plenty of room for Adam Cooper’s inventive choreography, which often features a troop of girls who might be the Davies sisters, screaming groupies or Pan’s People at various times. The book, written by Joe Penhall from Ray Davies’ own original story is concise and witty and Edward Hall directs with aplomb. Most of the familiar hits, many of which sound better now than when first released, are included and performed superbly, but, in case any were missed, a five minute medley of ones that might not have fitted into the narrative comes after the cast have taken their bows and gets the entire audience (many in the same age group as the Kinks) onto its feet, jigging around and clapping. As well as telling the story of a rock band, the book and the songs’ lyrics also describe a unique decade of massive change and they paint vivid pictures of a city (London) in which dedicated followers of fashion strolled on sunny afternoons, heading for Waterloo at sunset. For those of us who can remember such things and probably also for those who can’t, this is a joyous show.

Performance date: 7 May 2014

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

The lounge room of the Leicester Square Theatre has a performance area of little more than 9ft by 6ft, with the audience seated on three sides and a hard wooden bench on the fourth. This is a prison cell in which a single prisoner, Oscar Wilde, paces back and forth, sits, kneels and bemoans his confinement and his fall from grace. Paul Dale Vickers has adapted and set to music the letter written by Wilde from his prison cell to Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), his former lover and the cause of his downfall. Essentially it is a self-pitying lament, as Wilde bemoans his loss of status, liberty, dignity and respect. He has faced ridicule on a corner of Clapham Common whilst being transported to gaol, his mother has died during his confinement and the courts have ruled him an unfit father for his two beloved sons. All this for the sake of “the love that dares not speak its name” and for a man that he regards as vain, selfish and holding a talent for being coarse, a man who reciprocates by treating Wilde like a trivial plaything. Bearded and wearing a denim jacket over a t-shirt, Alastair Brookshaw makes no attempt to look like Wilde, but he acts and sings this piece beautifully, giving what is, in effect, a 50- minute chamber recital, with the accompaniment of a single piano. He shows us a man filled with bitterness and resentment, railing against those who have betrayed him and at the hypocrisy of late Victorian society. The wit for which Wilde was renowned is absent from the letter, which is consistent in its angry, pessimistic tone. However, there is little anger in the rich, melodic score which soothes more than enrages. It encourages quiet contemplation of injustices in our country more than a century ago and injustices that still persist in Russia, Uganda and scores of other places across the World today.

Performance date: 6 May 2014

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Bullets_6501This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Some things are so obvious that it is a mystery why they have never happened before. It has always seemed natural that Woody Allen’s lifelong love affair with New York and his passion for the music of the golden age of the 1920s and 30’s would come together to create a Broadway musical and, at long last, here it is. Purists may argue that a real musical needs an original score, but, when a show incorporates standards by Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and a host of others from the same era, who can possibly complain? The book is adapted from Allen’s screenplay for the film which he made in 1994, during his own golden age. It concerns David Shayne, a struggling young writer (a character clearly identifiable with Allen himself) who, desperate to get his play performed on Broadway, agrees to have the production financed by a gangster; in return, the gangster’s girlfriend Olive, a hooker and a truly awful actress whose only previous stage experience has been in striptease shows, will get a starring role. The gangster assigns Cheech, a seemingly brainless thug, to chaperone Ellen, but Cheech becomes so absorbed in the project that he begins to re-write the play and eventually reaches the point where he is prepared to kill or be killed for the sake of his art. In essence and tone, the show occupies the same territory as Mel Brooks’ The Producers, affectionately satirising the murky links between the art of theatre and the financing of it. Allen delivers a piercingly funny gag in his very distinctive style for every few seconds of dialogue and who better than Susan Stroman (also director of The Producers) to keep it all moving along? Featuring possibly the most overworked chorus line in the recent history of musicals, the whole company, from the lead actors down, join in the singing and dancing. Zack Braff is a lot more animated than the writer himself might have been in the role of the put-upon and bemused David Shayne, but his style of delivery and Allen’s lines are a perfect match. Helene Yorke is a delightful Olive, performing the very risqué The Hot Dog Song to howls of laughter. As Cheech, Nick Cordero is made up to look like a near relative of Frankenstein’s monster and he gets to lead his gang of hoods in the big showstopper, a fabulous tap dance routine to ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do. Amongst a top notch cast, other stand-outs are Marin Mazzie as a fading Broadway star who proudly proclaims herself to be “a dipsomaniac, a nymphomaniac and a kleptomaniac” and Brooks Ashmanskas as a leading man with the king of all eating disorders, whose waistline expands almost as we look at him.! ! The first half, a whirlwind of comedy, music and dance, is at times blissful and the question at the interval is whether it can possibly get any better. The answer is that it can’t. There is still loads more to enjoy, but, as the second half progresses, Braff’s excessive physical clowning, great at first, starts to grate, the running gags run out of steam and Allen’s musical choices go from inspired to, in the final routine, insipid. Surprisingly, Yes! We Have No Bananas does indeed originate from a Broadway musical, but, by closing his show with it, Allen seems determined that his last gag is to be at the expense of the audience. However, it feels churlish to nitpick over details at the end of an evening packed with so much entertainment. It feels as if Woody Allen has found a home here where he belongs.

Performance date: 3 May 2014

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