Archive for July, 2015

 

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Anyone who still thinks that the Beatles wrote the only songbook of the 1960s needs to rock on down to the Menier Chocolate Factory and listen to some Burt Bacharach, whose songs are being rediscovered, reinvented and reimagined by Kyle Riabko and six other hugely talented musicians in a show that first appeared in New York in 2013. The rediscovery process for each song takes very little time for the listener – two bars of the intro and we’re all singing along. Riabko’s arrangements present the songs in styles ranging from soft jazz to hard rock, accompanied by guitars, keyboards and percussion. If some of what transpires is surprising, what could be more appropriate for a composer renowned for sudden key changes and taking melodies in unexpected directions? Yes, the songs come across as bright and fresh, but no, the brilliance of the stars of 60s is never lost – Dionne and Dusty, Sandie and Cilla, and many, many more are all still here in spirit. The staging too matches the musicianship; the Menier becomes a vibrant cellar club, with chairs and sofas all around the stage and the movement in Steven Hogget’s impeccably choreographed production flows with the constantly changing rhythms. Anastacia McCleskey’s soulful Don’t Make Me Over stands out, but this is a show with 30 or so highlights, knitted together to perfection in solos, group numbers and medleys. Of course, lyricist Hal David played a big role in creating all this. There are no spoken words in the show, no story holds it all together and the result is a format that delivers a perfect kick in the groin for those “juke box” musicals that bore us with the same old tale of the rags-to-riches rise of some pop icon(s) when all we really want is to hear the music. Here there is only music, 90 minutes of it straight through, complemented by superb staging. A great night out!

Performance date: 14 July 2015

the mentalists This review has been written at the invitation of OFFICIAL THEATRE – http://www.officialtheatre.com

Firstly, apologies to anyone under 60 to whom many references in this review may mean very little. With this comedy, first staged by the National Theatre in 2002, Richard Bean (oddly only 59) has tapped into a brand of humour usually thought to be uniquely British, although it probably isn’t. Think of the curmudgeonly, cantankerous so-and-so who frequently starts sentences “what’s wrong with this country is…”; think of the melancholic dreamer who invents hair-brained schemes to put things right but is always thwarted; think Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, but above all, think Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock. It is probably recognition or part of him in all of us that makes this type of character so enduring. Bean’s creation is known simply as Ted, down on his luck, blaming someone or something else for everything and developing a preposterous idea to turn things round. He comes up with marketing a lifestyle plan that confounds all the theories of  “the mentalists” (meaning Freud, etc). As Ted is played by Stephen Merchant, co-writer of The Office, it is neat to say think just a little bit David Brent, but let’s stick with Hancock. Merchant may not look like the man from East Cheam, but, sure enough he sounds like him and, with an equivalent of Sid thrown in, we are treated to something like Hancock’s three half-hours plus interval. Ted’s foil is Morrie (Steffan Rhodri), a more grounded if slightly dodgy hairdresser turned amateur video maker. We meet the pair in a cheap hotel room in Finsbury Park, where they have come to shoot a film to promote Ted’s scheme. The room in Richard Kent’s set is fairly recognisable, if slightly larger than normal and not quite as ghastly as described in the script. The play begins with a torrent of one-line gags, which puts Merchant immediately into his comfort zone and Bean adopts a slow reveal technique to tell us the characters’ back stories, explain how they came together and expand on their reasons for being in Finsbury Park. Unfortunately, we are not told enough during the first half of the play to hold our interest when the gags dry up and Abbey Wright’s production hits a very soggy patch in the 15 minutes or so leading up to the interval, when thoughts of an early exit start to occur. Act II is much better and more consistently amusing; the characters become well-rounded, the comedy becomes darker and there is even a dash of pathos added to the mix. Taken as a whole, The Mentalists is undemanding light entertainment, but, for us senior citizens, it has a bonus ingredient, that of nostalgia.

Performance date: 11 July 2015

Little-Malcolm-Web-700x455This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

We are lucky to be in the middle of a terrific decade for 50th Anniversary revivals, with producers being given an excuse to mine the rich seam of 1960s drama. David Halliwell’s satire first appeared in 1965 when the new wave of realism on the British stage was well established and exciting new works, pushing the boundaries of theatre, were emerging. However, time moves on and there is a risk that revivals of old works will appear as little more than strolls down Memory Lane. Halliwell’s play escapes that charge due to the fact the neither of the dual targets of its satire – rebellious students and brutal dictators – have ever gone far away in the course of the last half century. Halliwell reveals both the vigour of youthful dreams and their ultimate emptiness and many of his messages must resonate more loudly now than when the play was written. Kicked out of a Huddersfield art school, Malcolm Scrawdyke plots his revenge against the oppressive head master by forming the Party of Dynamic Erection. He has no political agenda, Lenin and Mussolini having equal status as his role models. His objective is power for its own sake, to be used and abused as he chooses and all dissenters will be labeled “eunuchs”. Daniel Easton’s Malcolm, bearded and dressed throughout in a Winter trench coat to counter the cold of his unheated flat in a freezing January, appears to his cohorts as a confident, quick-thinking and charismatic leader. He proves to be a fierce orator during rehearsals of rallies, yet Halliwell inserts several Hamlet-style soliloquies during which Malcolm reveals directly to the audience his inner doubts and sexual inadequacies. Easton projects both sides of the character with impressive ease. Jemima Robinson’s excellent set is a chaotic student flat, furnished sparsely with a wooden table and chairs, a step ladder and a record player on which vinyl jazz albums are played, thereby inspiring the feel of a 60s B film. As the revolutionary movement gains momentum, brightly coloured flags and banners are added, contrasting with the backdrop of a white-on-black sketch of a Northern industrial landscape, which suggests that LS Lowry has chalked on a school blackboard. Much of the comedy arises from Halliwell’s sharp ear for the language of everyday life and from his skill in puncturing his characters’ delusions with swift injections of reality. Clive Judd’s fast-paced, high energy production makes the near three hours running time pass quickly. He choreographs ensemble scenes with precision and imagination, bringing out top class performances from the entire company. Wick (Laurie Jamieson) is drawn into the fold by Malcolm’s flattery, being assured that he has gifts as an artist that are seen “once in every five generations”, and the slow thinking man of little words Irwin (Barney McElholm) follows. Ann (Rochenda Sandall) is the object of Malcolm’s lust, but she is well-grounded and sees through all his swagger, paying a heavy price for her temerity. Some of the most poignant comic moments arise from the character of the nerdy, self- deluded and “disputatous” Dennis Charles Nipple (Scott Arthur), who appears as if a bespectacled prototype hoody. Malcolm recruits him and then, in a scene reminiscent of school playground bullying, he sits imperiously on a makeshift throne and expels him cruelly. In the final stages, comedy is jettisoned as the play hints at the chilling consequences of being lured into following false idols and warped ideologies. Now, this revival assumes urgent modern relevance and any suggestion that Halliwell’s satire has passed its sell-by date is laid firmly to rest.

Performance date: 10 July 2015

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house of mirrors..,The rise of original British chamber musicals has been one of the most encouraging features of theatre in recent times. Apartment 40c showed enormous promise and The Clockmaker’s Daughter was simply wonderful, making this latest addition to the trend eagerly anticipated. However, the line between success and failure is a very thin one and the fervent wish to hail another triumph has to be countered by the need to be honest. Rob Gilbert and Eamonn O’Dwyer’s attempt to explore the darker side of human nature through musical theatre is bold, but their decision to shape their book in the form of old-fashioned melodrama rather than modern realism is perhaps their big mistake. Yes, melodrama has often been fertile territory for musicals in the past, but not where the underlying psychological themes are as deep as here. The house of the title is that of a mirror maker, whose mysterious death in his workshop is witnessed only by his older daughter, Laura. Flash forward several years and the teenage Laura (Grace Rowe) is withdrawn and refusing to reveal what she saw, her younger sister, 15-year-old Lily (Molly McGuire), is unruly and slutty and their mother Anna (Gillian Kirkpatrick) is an aggressive drunk. Their home is shaken up by the arrival of the studious young academic Nathan as a lodger; Anna and Lily compete to bed him, whilst he has eyes only for the retiring Laura. Jamie Muscato has little to do in the role of Nathan except for looking uncomfortable and Graham Bickley has even less to do as David, another lodger who has a habit of disappearing in the middle of conversations. The opening half hour moves slowly, but then the show springs to life when Anna extols the glories of the bottle, singing Something for the Pain whilst drinking herself unconscious. This is all that a song in a musical needs to be – stirring, witty, character-developing – and Kirkpatrick, giving it everything she has, gets the ovation that she deserves. However, it sets the bar high and every other number in the show struggles to match it. There is an overriding bitterness in O’Dwyer’s music, which, although suiting the show’s main themes, makes many of the songs very difficult to listen to. Only the recurring Secrets and Lies has a strong melody; otherwise, the score is lacking in contrasts. There are opportunities to introduce variations – when Laura and Nathan escape the oppression of the house, they hurl bottles into a lake, symbolising the removal of their shackles, but the music does not rise to match their carefree euphoria. Nathan is researching the life and works of an early romantic poet and O’Dwyer styles some of his lyrics as if they are taken directly from the poet’s work; this device makes songs seem stilted, when what they really need to be doing is expressing the characters’ own emotions. David Woodhead’s two-level set does a pretty good job of suggesting a neglected old house, but the awkward larger space at the Arcola presents challenges for a set designer and there is at least one key incident in the show that would not be visible from some positions in the audience. This is a musical without dance and Ryan McBryde directs a sombre, steadily paced production. With the one exception mentioned, the songs are the show’s biggest disappointment, doing little to develop characters or plot. They leave the story exposed and, as is always the risk with melodrama, it often often comes across as full of holes, rather ridiculous and trivialising issues that should be of profound concern. The show concludes with a denouement that is obvious from scene one and a “twist” that had been well-signalled an hour earlier. This is a work that can be applauded for its ambition, but it falls some way short of achieving its full potential.

Performance date: 7 July 2015

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It takes a brave writer to interrupt his play just a few minutes in and tell the audience exactly what is wrong with it. Using the legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (Edward Bennett) as a mouthpiece, Austin Pendleton chastises himself for writing stilted dialogue which serves no purpose other than to bombard the audience with facts. He is spot on. Thereafter, Pendleton carries on regardless, firing at us a myriad of details relating to the careers of his four thespian protagonists – Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Joan Plowright. It seems that Pendleton is determined that no production, no date and no person that any of the four has worked with should be left unmentioned. The result is a play that often comes close to buckling under the weight of too much information. Yes, of course younger audiences may not be too familiar with these characters, but surely it is not necessary to relate near-complete life histories for anyone to get what the play is all about – actors with inflated egos, living their lives removed from reality. In 1960, Tynan acted as go-between to bring together Welles as director and Olivier as star for a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Royal Court Theatre in London. There is very little sparkle in a first half recounting separate discussions which Tynan had firstly with Welles and then with Olivier, but the play ignites at the start of the second Act, when the two giants collide and rehearsals begin. Fretting over what to do with his hands during a scene, Larry seeks Orson’s advice and is told to do some dusting; “how do I do that?” Larry enquires, to which Orson replies: “How the Hell would I know?!” Delicious mischief such as this could fill an evening. Well padded (we presume), John Hodgkinson is an imposing Orson, with a booming voice and the arrogant air of a genius trying to escape from the shadow of his masterpiece Citizen Kane. Incapable of understanding why Hollywood studios refuse to back his latest art house venture, his reason for being here is to persuade the new National Theatre under Olivier and Tynan to provide finance. Adrian Lukis gives us a comic caricature of Larry, showing him to be a neurotic ditherer with deep inner doubts, but not projecting his charisma and outward authority. Pendleton leaves Joan as something of a blank, perhaps respecting the fact that the lady is, happily, still amongst us and gives Louise Ford little to work on. However, he goes to town with Vivien and Gina Bellman tears into the role. This is a real-life cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, shamelessly seducing Orson’s young assistant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) whilst stricken with tuberculosis and manic depression. She knows that her marriage to Larry is over but refuses to face up to the fact and Bellman makes us believe that this really is a woman who would fit in sessions of electric shock treatment between nightly starring appearances on Broadway. When director Alice Hamilton’s in-the-round production is good, it is very good, but, after all the fireworks of the second Act, Pendleton returns to earlier form with a needless recital of what happened to everyone after the play ended. If only he could have focussed solely on the juicy drama and not tried to give us a lesson in theatre and film history, his play could have been a classic.

Performance date: 6 July 2015

As Is****+ (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: July 4, 2015 in Theatre

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

Snippets from radio broadcasts spanning 35 years precede the performance of Andrew Keates’ revival of William M Hoffman’s play, giving a perspective of how times have changed. An American voice reports solemnly that a “rare pneumonia” has struck the San Francisco gay community, followed immediately by Nigel Farage proclaiming that 60% of new HIV patients in the UK are foreign nationals. Tagged “the first AIDS play”, Hoffman’s work is set in New York in the early 1980s, a time when a diagnosis of HIV positive was viewed as a death sentence. In a sense, the play is “As Was”, but the disease has not been consigned merely to history or the Third World. HIV may be treatable, but it is not curable. It is preventable, but its spread is not contained. Keates, an HIV/AIDS campaigner, is linking his production to various initiatives aimed at raising awareness and encouraging preventative action. Looked at in the context of a health campaign, something dry and preachy could have been expected rather that what we actually get – a feast of irreverent comedy, generating more laugh-out-loud moments than it is reasonable to hope for in 70 minutes of theatre. Hoffman’s work can be summed up as a short, comic precursor to Angels in America, a series of very funny sketches joined together by scenes of serious reflection and emotion. The play begins with Rich (Steven Webb), a writer and Saul (David Poyner), a photographer parting company and dividing their joint assets, including the cat. Calling their relationship “a marriage” seems prescient, their decision to sell their Apple Corporation stock less so. Shortly afterwards, Rich develops the first symptoms of AIDS and, in a non-linear progression, the story tells us how the disease brings the couple back together. Webb gives a superb display of wavering defiance, moving from carefree playfulness to angry indignation, resigned despair and finally hope. Poyner’s Saul is equally heroic in his unfaltering devotion, rather resembling a pampering Jewish mother and advocating a solid, if boring, relationship as something to fall back on when times get hard. With mordant humour becoming their lifeblood, they make a convincing and touching odd couple. Jane Lowe as a whisky-swilling, sardonic hospice worker also stands out in a cast of eight. Keates uses the small space to good advantage, particularly in lively early scenes – a chaotic disco, a bath house orgy – demonstrating the promiscuity, fuelled by light drugs and alcohol, for which such a heavy price was paid. Later, two camp helpline workers (Dino Fetscher and Russell Morton) merge with the audience, dispensing advice to callers, along with hilarious, bitchy asides. Little separates tragedy from comedy in this play. Medical advances may have made this groundbreaking work look dated and led to it becoming unfairly overlooked. Here it gets the revival that it deserves in a production that is both funny and poignant.

Performance date: 3 July 2015

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It is now almost two years since Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel first appeared at the Regent’s Park Theatre and it has been touring ever since. Fittingly, it returns to London in the month of publication of Go Set a Watchman, probably the longest awaited follow-up in literary history. Retaining the feel of its original venue, a large tree hogs the central position on the Barbican stage, with a plain background changing colours with the seasons. Timothy Sheader keeps his production as simple as the story he is telling – that of the widower Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the American Deep South, his two young children Scout and Jem and their friend Dill. The year is 1935 and racial segregation and prejudice dominate the life of the town and the justice system. Lee told her story from the perspective of the older Scout, seeing events through a child’s eyes and this production uses Scout’s narration, read directly from several editions of the novel, with members of the company taking turns. The device is amazingly effective, creating a strong sense of community and incorporating into the production the beautiful literacy of Lee’s original words. It is clear from the outset, that this is a production that is well bedded-in and I suspect that it has increased in confidence and power as it has matured. The roles of three children are played on a rotating basis, but the three that I saw were excellent. The central figure of Atticus is played superbly by Robert Sean Leonard (can it really be over 25 years since he was the troubled schoolboy in Dead Poets’ Society?) with calm authority. His wisdom, his passion for justice and his courage in taking on the defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman elevate him from dull father to hero in the eyes of his children. The greatest danger for any dramatisation of Lee’s novel has to be avoiding making it too schmaltzy and, although I have to confess that I could only see most of this version through eyes clouded by tears, it never feels as if we are being manipulated, rather that we are reacting naturally to the emotion in the story and the way that it is being told. The key messages in Lee’s work emerge here with perfect clarity and they are timeless – that nothing is ever as it may at first seem, that villains may really be heroes and that every new generation has the chance to do things better than the one that went before it.

Performance date: 2 July 2015