Archive for July, 2014

photo-139Even at this performance, well into the show’s run, the audience seemed unusually full of theatre people (Caroline O’Connor and Lesley Manville the most recognisable), rolling in laughter at the constant flow of not-so-subtle in-jokes at the expense of their profession. For those like me, only half “in”, and for those more”out”, maybe the jokes will come across as a bit hit and miss and also quite repetitive, but still this show, an update of Gerard Alessandrini’s musical revue first seen here in 2009, provides pretty superior entertainment. It is based on the single joke of taking many of the most famous show tunes and changing the lyrics to satirise the shows, their writers, their stars and their producers – Cameron Mackintosh’s take on American Dream from Miss Saigon is a highlight. The first half seems more like “Forbidden West End” with bang up to date references, ending with One Day More from a weary cast of Les Miserables, which becomes 10 Years More (obviously). As the show progresses, it gets more Broadway, stretching from Oklahoma to Book of Mormon. Impersonations of stars such as Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, Hugh Jackman and Angela Lansbury strike instant recognition, but Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno, Idina Menzel and Mandy Patinkin are less well known on this side of the pond; Menier audiences may not appreciate being reminded of Patinkin who appeared in a catastrophic flop here in 2010, before returning shame-faced to his home land, but his inclusion may correct impressions somewhat by demonstrating his stature in New York. Of course the show is self-indulgent, which is a big part of its appeal, but it can hardly be described as “gentle” or wholly “affectionate”; children’s musicals (Lion King, Charlie… etc) are lampooned with bile and, with Into the Words, there is even mockery of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (do these people ever want to work again?). The show ends fittingly with a stinging attack on the takeover of Broadway by big corporations to the tune of Tomorrow Belongs To Me from Cabaret. Equating Disney etc to the Nazis in pre-war Germany is a bit strong, but we all recognise the sentiments. The four performers – Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis are all excellent and show remarkable skill in quick changes of costume and make-up. Great fun.

Performance date: 15 July 2014

Mr Burns** (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: July 12, 2014 in Theatre

photo-137Never having seen an episode of The Simpsons from beginning to end, I approached this with some trepidation. Anne Washburn’s play, which turns into a musical in its later stages, is set in a world in which, following a nuclear catastrophe, there is no electricity and all that is left for the survivors to do is to mull over and recreate old episodes of the television cartoon series. Act I, set in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, sees a group huddled around a camp fire discussing a specific episode in minute detail. Not helped by the performance being in half light, it is difficult to engage with the characters on stage and impossible to imagine that even the most fanatical of Simpsons devotees would not find this discussion excruciatingly boring. Act II, set seven years later, is not much better; now, in this post-electric society, the only form of entertainment is performing episodes of the cartoon, pieced together from memory, with rival groups competing with each other and trading lines from the scripts as a form of currency. Everything that is of interest in this show comes in the completely bonkers, musical Act III, set 75 years later and consisting of a re-enactment of the episode under discussion in Act I, wildly distorted by the passage of time. Here we see the Simpson family facing up to its nemesis, the satanic Mr Burns, in a battle of good versus evil. All this seems to add up to a satire on the pervasive influence of American popular culture, yet, in the final act which is filled with pious moralising and ceremonial rituals, there are hints that Washburn could be aiming at a bigger target – that of all organised religion. However, what she seems to forget is that any successful satire needs to be sharp and incisive; by stretching this one out to 2 hours 45 minutes (including two intervals) and allowing two thirds of it to become mired in longueurs, she has effectively extracted its teeth. On the plus side, the show is highly original and performed with gusto – who would have thought that Jenna Russell, a wonderful leading lady in Sondheim musicals, might progress to playing Bart Simpson? Washburn deserves credit for attempting something ambitious and different, but, sadly, she fails to pull it off.

Performance date: 11 July 2014

Attachment-1-2This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

The tragedy of Lucrece is mentioned by William Shakespeare in several of his plays, but his narrative poem which recounts the full story is known to most of us only from the page. This bold and imaginative production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was first staged at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2011, brings the poem to vivid life. Part spoken and part sung, the poem is performed by the Irish singer and actor Camille O’Sullivan, accompanied on piano by Feargal Murray. Together, they have written the haunting music, which is in the rock ballad style, ranging from soothingly melodic when matching Shakespeare’s lyrical descriptions of Lucrece’s beauty, to loud and discordant in harrowing scenes of violence and anger. O’Sullivan’s clear and powerful voice do full justice to both the words and the music throughout. O’Sullivan’s style as a concert performer is always intensely dramatic, but here, not content to just stand in front of a microphone, she deploys her considerable acting skills, playing at first the abuser, Tarquin, and then the victim. She begins wearing a full-length black coat and, with her hair pinned back tightly, she has the severe appearance of a prison warder. Once the foul deed has been committed, she discards the coat and becomes Lucrece. Wearing just a pure white night dress, her hair now dishevelled and falling forward, she writhes on her bed in pain and disgust. Lily Arnold’s simple designs represent a grand, unfurnished room, with large windows at the back and littered with manuscripts piled high. The production is marked throughout by exceptionally effective lighting by Vince Herbert. A square block of light represents Lucrece’s bedroom and, inside it, a smaller white square is her bed. At the end of the performance, a thin shaft of light across the stage links a heavy pair of men’s black boots at one end to a pair of white ladies’ slippers at the other, leaving us with an indelible summarising image. This 80 minute interpretation of Shakespeare’s work is a unique and memorable fusion of of poetry, drama and music. It is also a personal triumph for the extraordinary Camille O’Sullivan, providing a showcase for the full range of her talents.

Performance date: 9 July 2014

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p.txtMartyn Hesford’s writing credits include a television bio-pic of Kenneth Williams and, although no-one actually talks in Polari in this new comedy, he extends a line of gay humour which stretches from Julian and Sandy in the 1960s through Larry Grayson to Julian Clary. In other words, Hesford extracts most of his laughs from mocking exaggerated stereotypes, but, sadly, the comedy is shallow and lacking in the kind of insight found in, for example, Kevin Elyot’s soon to be revived My Night With Reg, which features similar characters and situations. Marcus (Michael Begley) is boring, fussy about stains on his John Lewis carpet and touchy about his expanding paunch; understandably, his partner of 20 years, Colin (Owen Sharpe) has turned to drugs. They have moved recently to a cottage in Hampshire and their solitude is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a gruff businessman, Steven (Michael Feast) with his promiscuous and very camp 18 year old toy boy, Jamie (Alex Lawther). The two couples had met on a cruise a year earlier and enjoyed each other’s company in every sense. The visitors also bring in tow Steven’s slutty and coarse ex-wife, Wendy, played with relish by Michelle Collins, who looks as if she could well build a fruitful post-soap career in theatre. Hesford offers a flimsy explanation for Wendy’s presence, but, in effect, she is little more than a catalytic device for getting the comedy moving. It would be dishonest to deny that a lot of what follows is very funny, particularly when Collins is in full drunken flow during the raucous second act, but the absence of any real depth leads to a guilty feeling whilst laughing, like when watching an old episode ‘Allo, ‘Allo. Intermittently entertaining this play is for sure, but, if there were to be any suggestion that these irksome characters represent 21st Century gay lifestyles accurately, it could be enough to nudge even the most liberal minded of Hampstead audiences in the direction of homophobia.

Performance date: 8 July 2014

Attachment-1-3Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons first appeared in 1862, preceding Chekhov’s greatest plays by more than 30 years, yet Brian Friel’s adaptation is marked by the same feelings of wistfulness and melancholy as those plays. The setting is rural Russia on the estates of aristocratic landowners, but, whereas Chekhov used similar settings to depict a social order in terminal decline and on the cusp of being overturned, Turgenev sees the emergence of revolutionary forces which will make waves, but ultimately leave the status quo intact. There is much talk of disturbing “the natural order of things”, but not displacing it and, taking a longer view of history from a modern day perspective, perhaps Turgenev got it right and even the 1917 Revolution was no more than a temporary blip. Arkady and Bazarov are close friends who return together from university in St Petersburgh to their family homes, both claiming to be nihilists, without agreeing with each other on the word’s definition. Arkady cannot entirely detach himself from his heritage and bonds of affection, but Bazarov, a brilliant student and radical thinker, is dispassionate towards his family and lovers, until he meets the lovely widow Anna and finds it impossible to rein in his emotions. There are flaws in the narrative which emanate from the novel itself and from condensing it, but Friel’s script is rich with insight and wit. There can be no complaints about Lindsey Turner’s production – she strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humour, paying great attention to detail and her casting choices are impeccable. Tim McMullan shines as Arkady’s Uncle Pavel, debonair, droll, waspish and the staunchest defender of the established order. Seth Numrich, the American actor who was so good in Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic last year, impresses again with his commanding stage presence as Bazarov, showing us the inner turmoil beneath the character’s outward fervour. Joshua James is a naive and impressionable Arkady, devoted and loyal, but rueful that he lacks both the intellect and dynamism of his friend. As the two fathers, Anthony Calf and Karl Johnson are loveable eccentrics, both touching us as they face their families’ ordeals. The set, built almost entirely from planks of wood, is magnificent, rounding off what is a highly accomplished work of theatre.

Performance date: 4 July 2014

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

In a world where shoals of cod can sing in a 17,000 point harmony and whales can communicate with each other across thousands of undersea miles, the human race struggles to make itself heard, blocked by censorship and inarticulacy. Fine Chisel has devised this musical entertainment, building upon these themes in a loosely linked story which moves between a marine biology station off the Alaskan coast to a pirate radio ship in the North Sea. Set very vaguely in the early 1960s, the story concerns Ted (Robin McLoughlin), an academic who is researching marine mammal bioacoustics, living a solitary life and obsessed with tracking singing whales across the Bering Sea. He is able to distinguish between the accents of individual whales, but, impaired by a brain tumour, he has difficulty in finding words to pass on his knowledge to his student, Fiona (Holly Beasley).  Fiona is more obsessed with human communication and, springing from an aversion to the BBC’s Light Programme (something like the modern Radio 2), she establishes an illegal radio station to broadcast whatever she chooses. However, when she airs provocative views and reads extracts from the then banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ted tries to persuade her that she would be more suited to a sedate job in Belgium. This bizarre narrative provides a framework and ambience to showcase some lively music, which is themed on the life aquatic, ranging from emulating whale noises to rocking a pirate boat. George Williams plays guitar and provides vocals, Tom Spencer plays banjo and percussion and Carolyn Goodwin also vocalises and plays woodwind, contributing some outstanding jazz saxophone segments. Beasley adds a couple of dances to add to the entertainment, showing little regard for the lecture room setting, surrounded by blackboards and charts. Dumbstruck is, in essence, about connectivity, yet, itself, it does not quite connect to make a coherent whole. Nonetheless, if not taken too seriously, it provides an unusual and pleasantly entertaining evening.

Performance date: 3 July 2014

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photo-132This show begins very badly, with its writer/presenter, Danny Braverman, handing round  cold fish balls to the audience and, with the unpleasant taste still lingering in the mouth, he embarks on a rather unpromising anecdote about a bowel operation. His style is relaxed and amiable but not witty and he seems to be rambling, which makes it all the more surprising when I realised, after about 15 minutes, that I had become totally enthralled. The true story concerns his great aunt, Celie and her husband Ab Solomons, an employed Jewish shoemaker living in London’s East End. They married in 1926 and, from that time for over half a century, Ab received his weekly pay in a small, brown, dated envelope and, on the reverse side, he drew sketches depicting the couple’s life together. Having found these envelopes in shoeboxes, Braverman projects them onto a screen and relates the couple’s story, in some cases illuminating the sketches with supposition, in others leaving them to explain themselves. As Ab grows in confidence, the sketches become bolder and more explicit; they tell of young lovers, proud parents, wartime hardship, heartache and illness. Ab and Celie’s younger son was afflicted by severe autism and epilepsy and, as was normal in those times, he was incarcerated in a “loony bin”. Ab was a “schlump”, but Celie had style and aspirations, always wanting to move from the squalid East End to the middle class Golders Green. Overwhelmingly, this is a story of undying love, constantly tugging at the heartstrings, but never resorting to excessive sentimentality. It is also a story of fortitude, endurance and of overcoming life’s trials and it is told by Braverman with great affection and family pride, as shown when he finds himself as a child amongst the figures in the sketches. The story also has symmetry and irony – Ab and Celie’s older son was (and still is) an art dealer who owned a Rothko and lunched with the likes of Francis Bacon, yet he never realised the value of the treasures lying in shoe boxes beneath his own bed. In all, this is the most beautiful and moving piece of story telling that I can remember experiencing.

Performance date: 3 July 2014