Archive for January, 2015

widowershouses_alexwaldmann_rebeccacollingwood_imagerichardhubertsmith_George Bernard Shaw seems to have been out of fashion for many years, but a major new production at the National is coming up and, to get us in the mood, this is a rare opportunity to see the Irish writer’s debut play, first produced in 1892. The play is a thinly disguised lecture against the evil doings of Victorian slum landlords, that disguise being a brittle story about the on/off engagement between the daughter of a self-made man (now a widower) and a young doctor of aristocratic descent. Shaw’s messages relating to greed and a capitalist system in which even those with good intentions become entangled are still relevant today, but the big difference is that we have now heard them many times and the lack of subtlety with which they are put across here makes them hard to digest. That said, slices of early Shavian wit sweeten the pill and Paul Miller’s handsome in-the-round production is never dull. When all else fails, we can always titter, at the ridiculous character names like Trench (the doctor) and Sartorius (the father). In those roles, Alex Waldmann and Patrick Drury are extremely effective, as is Rebecca Collingwood as the hotheaded daughter, Blanche. However, the production is really given fresh energy by two gloriously over-the-top performances: Stefan Adegbola is inspired casting as Cokane, obsequious, yet pompous and preening, handing out inappropriate advice and assistance to anyone who seeks it; and Simon Gregor makes the scheming lowlife Lickcheese look like a 19th Century prototype for Groucho Marx as he struts around puffing at his cigar. Shaw’s play certainly creaks, but this excellent production is still good for an entertaining couple of hours.

Performance date: 13 January 2015

women on the vergeIt is hard to believe that it has taken so long for one of the films of Pedro Almodovar to be turned into a musical, but even harder to believe that the film chosen would be Women on the Verge…. At his best, the Spanish writer/director is famed for colourful larger-than-life characters and mildly subversive stories which celebrate human diversity and the richness of life; yet, in this early (1988) film, there are only hints of those distinctive qualities, as we follow Pepa (mistress) and Lucia (wife), who go into tailspins when the lecherous Ivan dumps them both in favour of Lucia’s divorce lawyer. The jittery ladies are joined by Pepa’s friend Candela, suicidal in the wake of a relationship with a Jihadist, but finding consolation in Ivan’s son. This adaptation arrives (apparently revised extensively)  after a two-month run on Broadway in 2011/12. Jeffrey Lane’s book follows Almodovar’s screenplay fairly closely, but what had come across on screen as a wafer thin yet enjoyable screwball comedy translates to the stage as a rather conventional farce. Bartlett Sher’s production stops short of a complete breakdown, but it suffers from an identity crisis, wavering between the laugh-out-loud humour of the film and a semi-serious reflection on modern relationships. The main problem is that David Yazbek’s songs do not always fit in comfortably with the material. Bright up-tempo numbers such as the opening Madrid have a latin feel and work well, but doleful ballads often interrupt the flow and rhythm of the comedy. As a result, by the time that Pepa prepares a spiked jug of gazpacho which accidentally puts half the characters to sleep, the show may have worked the same trick on many in the audience. Efforts are made to create a Spanish ambience – posters decorating the foyer, garish fluorescent lighting (presumably intended to suggest Madrid chic in Pepa’s penthouse apartment), a dancer wearing a matador costume, touches of mambo and flamenco, etc – but they come to little when not followed through in all the performances. Tamsin Greig (Pepa), Haydn Gwynne (Lucia) and Jerome Pradon (Ivan) can just about pass as Spanish, but Anna Skellern’s Candela and several of the minor characters seem as if they could have strayed in from Made in Dagenham. The star of this production is, undoubtedly, Ricardo Afonso (who is Portuguese) as a taxi driver, a role expanded from the film to become a sort of wandering minstrel and narrator. He starts the second half with My Crazy Heart, sending it up mercilessly and he leads the company in what is by far the show’s best number, Tangled – choreographed imaginatively and summing up cleverly what the show is all about, it is a highpoint, but it does not arrive until midway through the second half. Unfortunately, there is very little else as memorable in Yazbek’s music and lyrics or Ellen Kane’s dance routines. Some nervy ladies of a certain age often decide that they “need work” and this is a show which could benefit from following their example.

Performance date: 12 January 2015

assassinsWhatever other ingredients are being used at the Chocolate Factory right now, fruit and nuts are in plentiful supply. This 1990 musical by Stephen Sondheim (music/lyrics) and John Weidman (book), never a commercial success, inverts the great American dream and shows it to have been born with a faulty gene. The title refers to nine misfits, malcontents and psychos, with problems ranging from social rejection to a stomach pain, who all find a common solution – kill the President! Fragmented and lacking both a linear narrative and sympathetic characters, this is not an easy show to take in. Yes we can admire its intellectual vigour, wallow in its musical virtuosity and feel gratitude for the extent to which it extends the boundaries of musical theatre, but can we ever like it? If so, it will not be the first time that a Sondheim musical has been judged ahead of its own time, nor that a major reappraisal has been triggered at this marvellous little South London theatre. The Menier is configured for a traverse stage, bigger than usual here, but with almost a quarter of it occupied throughout by the severed head of a giant clown that had towered over a fairground still presided over by its proprietor (Simon Lipkin); the carnival is definitely over, replaced by a macabre procession of killers, led by John Wilkes Booth (Aaron Tveit). The conventional wisdom that musicals need to be served up with a spoonful of syrup goes out of the window; a crazed  Charles Guiteau (Andy Nyman) places his little finger on the gun aimed at President Garfield; John Hinckley (Harry Morrison) serenades Jodie Foster before taking a few pops at Ronald Reagan, who refuses to lie down; a doleful Samuel Byck (Mike McShane), dressed as Santa Claus, outlines his intent to incinerate Richard Nixon in a letter to Leonard Bernstein; there is comedy too as Lynette Fromme (Carly Bawden) and Sara Jane Moore (Catherine Tate) plot the demise of Gerald Ford, but Moore, unable to offload her dog and young son, takes them with her, only to shoot the dog and miss Ford. However, the essential element of the show is not broad comedy but irony, both in the book/lyrics and in Sondheim’s varied score – the malevolent nine form a chorus to celebrate their warped vision with Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy), an anthem of triumph in true Broadway style; songs reflecting the times of events depicted dig into the roots of American patriotic culture; and then there is the irony used previously by Sondheim in Sweeney Todd, that of juxtaposing a lush romantic ballad with a bloody deed. Of course, Sweeney is a fictional melodrama, but the effect is even greater here because the events are lifted from the pages of real history, bringing home how closely the emotions of devotion and obsession lie together. Many of the songs are led by a balladeer (Jamie Parker) who, towards the end of the show, turns into Lee Harvey Oswald. Now the book has to acknowledge that there are some things that still cannot be made fun of and Weidman’s literate writing takes over, expanding on the themes that run throughout. Booth urges Oswald to pick up his rifle and take his place in a line that runs through himself back to Brutus and would-be assassins from the future assure him that his name will live on. Jamie Lloyd’s production is full-on – vivid, energetic and fast-moving – every role is filled perfectly and, if anyone asks which performers shine, the advice should be just to look at the cast list. Soutra Gilmour’s dusty, creepy set, Chris Bailey’s choreography and Alan Williams’ eight piece band are also superb. Assassins has always been a show that is dazzling in parts, but Lloyd’s achievement is to turn it into a theatrical experience that thrills and exhilarates in its entirety. Mr Sondheim, we are unworthy.

Performance date: 6 January 2015

the-grand-tour-mainSometimes it seems as if as many forgotten musicals lie buried beneath Broadway as Roman coins in Buckinghamshire fields and no team has become more accomplished at mining the treasure than producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland. This show bears the name of no less than Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage…, Mack & Mabel etc) and it is getting its European premiere over 35 years after it first opened in New York. Based on a play by Franz Werfel, it tells of Jacobowsky, a Polish Jew who, having fled from persecution in Warsaw, Berlin and Vienna, now finds himself in Paris at the beginning of the German occupation of France. Resourceful and indomitable, he joins with an arrogant, anti-semitic officer in the defeated Polish army and his fiancee in an attempt to flee to England and the “grand tour” of war torn Northern France begins. This is not the first musical to feature an escape from the Nazis, but in this one the tone is weighty throughout and the French countryside is alive with the sound of jackboots and gunfire. The book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble gives Jacobowsky a number of stirring passages, but, otherwise, it never tries too hard to steer clear of the predictable. The same can be said of Herman’s score and lyrics, particularly the key pre-interval uplifting number One Extraordinary Thing, which could easily have slotted into any other of his shows; however, he still comes up with pleasing melodies, performed here with the accompaniment of a keyboard player on each side of the stage; most notably, the haunting Marianne will linger long in the memory. The producer/director team’s previous successes have been at the comparatively spacious Southwark Playhouse; here, the company of ten literally fills the stage, with Phil Lindley’s rather clever set of moveable panels adapting to suggest the show’s many different locations. Southerland’s task is the equivalent of painting a panoramic landscape on a postage stamp, yet so successful is he in narrowing the focus to the human drama that it feels as if any attempt to open up the show for a larger stage would have the effect of diminishing it. Much credit for this must go to an extraordinarily moving performance by Alastair Brookshaw as Jacobowsky, hardened by his forced peripatetic lifestyle, but full of good humour and optimism. Nic Kyle and Zoe Doano also shine as the fellow travellers, transcending the somewhat stereotypical nature of their characters. The Grand Tour ran for only 61 performances on Broadway, but, as a fringe production, maybe it can do the rounds for quite a bit longer.

Performance date: 4 January 2015