Archive for August, 2015

mrs hend

In the decade since Billy Elliot hit gold, attempts to turn low-budget British films into stage shows have been plentiful, results have been mixed. Now, after shows have asked us to buy into people bursting into song and dance in car factories and on football pitches, here we have one that is set in and around, of all places, a theatre. So few sets required, the gorgeous Theatre Royal, Bath does the job perfectly and the fact that everything we see and hear feels as if it belongs naturally here gives this show a head start over all the rest. Tracie Bennett, bringing the ideal balance between refinement and coarseness, is the widowed Mrs Henderson, who buys the Windmill Theatre in London’s Soho in the late 1930s and hires Vivian Van Damm (Ian Bartholomew) to produce her shows. Faced with falling audiences, the pair concoct the idea of emulating the Moulin Rouge by featuring naked young ladies in their revues and Mrs H drops in on her friend the Lord Chamberlain to persuade him to give the green light. He does so with the stipulation that the ladies must adopt “artistic” poses and never move. The shows are a hit and, with the outbreak of war, the theatre adopts a “we never close” policy even through the Blitz and keeps up the spirits of the troops returning home on leave. The story is based on real events and many elements in it invite obvious comparisons with Gypsy, hardly a bad thing. That is not to say that the songs (lyrics Don Black, music George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain) are up to the Sondheim/Styne standard, but one hearing is not necessarily enough to make such a judgement definitive, because several of them sound pretty special. More importantly, the songs work perfectly within the context of the show. As the story moves effortlessly between broad comedy, pathos, romance and weighty drama, it is the songs that ease the transitions. Terry Johnson has adapted Martin Sherman’s screenplay and directs the production himself with enormous flair. In the opening scenes, there is so much visual comedy going on that it is difficult to take it all in, whilst several later scenes are so packed with emotion that the audience is awash with tears. Bartholomew’s rendition of Living in a Dream World, acknowledging his character’s Jewish heritage as the Nazis sweep across Europe, is heartbreaking and the young stage hand Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) fills the house with romance as he serenades tea lady Maureen (who goes on to star in the revues) with What a Waste of a Moon. Playing Maureen, Emma Williams gives us the “star is born” moment with an utterly captivating (and brave) performance, belting out If Mountains Were Easy to Climb, the big ballad most likely to take on a life outside the show. Mark Hadfield links scenes as the Windmill’s resident comic, churning out a string of dreadful blue jokes and making them funny. Enlivened by Andrew Wright’s bubbling choreography, Mrs Henderson Presents is a musical brim full with humour, emotion, patriotism and, yes, nudity. I doubt if anyone really knows what makes a hit musical, but, if this one doesn’t hit the heights, I’ll eat my……..well maybe not, but, if I’m right about it, at very least I’ll jump for joy.

Performance date: 27 August 2015

Thoroughly Modern Millie Photo Credit: ©Richard Davenport 2015, Richard@rwdavenport.co.uk, 07545642134

Photo Credit: ©Richard Davenport

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

The Landor is at it again, condensing a big Broadway musical to fit into its small space. However, the theatre has earned its reputation from working on shows that have mostly been far better than this one, so much of the interest comes from seeing whether the little pub venue can deploy the talents at its disposal to redeem it. Thoroughly Modern Millie began life as a 1967 Julie Andrews film with new songs by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan being combined with standards. In 2002 Scanlan joined forces with Richard Morris to adapt his screenplay for a Tony Award winning Broadway musical which transferred to the West End (starring Amanda Holden) a year later. The show is a lively look at New York in the Roaring Twenties, but it is dogged by the flimsiest of storylines and too many songs that are little better than so-so. Francesca Lara Gordon’s Millie is sassy and haughty, arriving in the big city from Kansas with her head filled by a 1922 version of feminism. She lands in a world of flappers, prohibition, speakeasies and the Charleston, determined to succeed by marrying a rich boss. Instead, she falls for Ben Stacey’s very likeable Jimmy, a smooth-talking chancer. Our heroine checks into a hotel run by Mrs Meers, a Chinese landlady who takes an aversion to “Mirrie” because she deems her unsuitable for use in her sideline – white slavery. Steph Perry never looks comfortable in the role of Meers and much of the comedy involving her and her two porters falls flat. In fairness, it must be said that, judged my modern (2015 that is) standards, the depiction in the script of these characters feels tasteless. Of the better songs, The Speed Test, with a tongue-twisting lyric in praise of stenography, stands out. Written and performed in the style of Gilbert & Sullivan, it is a real gem. And then the second half of the show is kickstarted when the girls join together to sing and tap dance their way through Forget About the Boy, which yields the bonus of helping us to forget about the plot. Director Matthew Iliffe conjures up a bubbly production with many inventive little touches. His young 12-strong company, most of them doubling up roles, serves him well and, very wisely, he calls upon the skills of his choreographer, Sam Spencer Lane, at every possible opportunity. Above all else, it is the dancing that makes this production work, but Chris Guard’s five- piece band produces a great, jazzy sound, whilst Andrew Riley’s period costumes and art deco set evoke the right feel of 1920s New York. Iliffe’s production manages to transcend some, if not quite all, of the musical’s problems. Insubstantial and quickly forgettable it may be, but this show is still rarely less than good fun.

Performance date: 26 August 2015

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Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker is something of a modern classic, having already found its way onto GCSE syllabuses. It is easy to see why, as it brings together a lesson in history, an abundance of literary references and comprehensive debates on morality. Given the sweep of her play, Wertenbaker can perhaps be forgiven for creating slightly stereotypical characters, but it is those characters who create the drama and the chief flaw in Nadia Fall’s epic new production is that it takes them too long to emerge as distinct individuals. Perhaps they become dwarfed by the sheer grandeur of the staging in the opened-out Olivier – an orange terrain and a bright blue sky establish the Australian coastal setting to which a ship full of deported British convicts arrives in the late 18th Century. Their captors establish a brutal penal colony, watched over throughout by a lone Aborigine (Gary Wood), who is presumably wondering what on earth the tide has washed up. A few liberal-minded officers hit upon the idea of the prisoners putting on a performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer and both prisoners and officers proceed to find some sort of redemption through the power of theatre. This is stirring stuff, but, in early sequences when the chief protagonists remain a blur, neither the drama of the prisoners’ inhuman treatment nor the comedy of the chaotic rehearsals works as well as it should. Some trimming and speeding up of scenes could have helped things along in a first half that occasionally edges too close to being tedious, but, once the interval has passed, the strongest characters come into sharp focus and gut-wrenching drama ensues. Under the shadow of the noose, Peter Forbes’ Major Ross, a barbaric Scottish martinet, contrasts sharply with Jodie McNee’s Liz, a proud and defiant Scouser; Shalisha James-Davis’ Duckling, accustomed to selling her favours for an easier life, tears at the heartstrings when mourning the loss of the conscience-stricken midshipman (Paul Kaye) she had feigned to despise; and Ashley McGuire’s Dabby stays defiant in her belief that liberty is more important than the price that might have to be paid for it. The icing on this substantial cake is a wonderful score by Cerys Matthews, played by four musicians, including Josienne Clarke whose beautiful, clear vocals fill the Olivier’s large auditorium. This is a good production containing many things to cherish, but just a little tightening up here and there could have turned it into a great one.

Performance date: 25 August 2015

the missing hancocks

Four “lost” scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson for the the 1950s radio show Hancock’s Half Hour are being performed here, two each on alternate days. I saw The Winter Holiday and New Year Resolution. The huge Music Hall at the Assembly Rooms, apparently filling every day (and not just with geriatrics like me), dwarfs what is on stage – just five actors standing at old-fashioned BBC microphones – and effectively diminishes it. This is a show that would suit being seen at a smaller venue or, better still, being listened to on a radio. Kevin McNally’s voice and delivery capture Hancock to perfection, Robin Sebastian is the camp Kenneth Williams, Simon Greenall the gruff Sid James, Alex Lowe the Aussie Bill Kerr and Suzy Kane is Hancock’s girlfriend, Andree Melly. Neil Pearson directs. And, to answer the obvious question, yes the scripts are still very funny, even if specific references in them became dated decades ago. A very pleasant stroll down Memory Lane

Performance date: 21 August 2015

Divas*** (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh)

Posted: August 26, 2015 in Theatre

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The title suggests a drag show, but Joel Samuels’ surprising and tender one-act play is in fact the story of an on-off romance between Adam (Samuels) and Damian (Daniel Ward), dogged by seeming incompatibilities and petty deceptions. The pair speak through handheld microphones directly to the audience and to each other, conveying the narrative briskly and effectively. Adam persuades Damian to share his passion for 60s/70s divas – Cher, Dusty, Aretha, The Supremes, The Ronettes, etc – and a three-girl a cappella group interjects occasionally with numbers associated with those artists. It is here that the show falters – the arrangements are weak and the songs are projected with little conviction. In order to make sense of the link between the story and the music, we need the songs to be showcased better than this. However, there are interesting and original ideas here and certainly there is scope for the show to be developed further.

Performance date: 21 August 2015

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Joe Sellman-Leava (let’s call him Joe for brevity) has got a bit of a nerve, luring us into a show that purports to be an amusing entertainment about the labels that we all stick on ourselves and each other and then delivering a thinly-disguised lecture on racism. Joe, a Devonian, is the son of an Indian (via Uganda) immigrant father who changed the family name from Patel, because that name was a label bringing with it too much prejudice. Joe’s winning smile and gently persuasive manner work wonders in selling his arguments, although quoting from speeches made by Enoch Powell half a century ago and from widely ridiculed figures such as David Starkey, Katie Hopkins and Jeremy Clarkson does not help him much. He tells us that the label “P**i” is unspeakably offensive, whilst not explaining why other four-letter labels of national origins – Brit, Jock, Taff, Frog, Yank, etc – are acceptable and did it not occur to him that the girl who rejected him on Tinder may have done so for no more sinister reason than that she just did not fancy him? Moving to the UK’s immigration policy, he argues that barriers are erected to keep out refugees on the grounds of racist labels, without considering that housing/job shortages and strains on health and education services could have something to do with it. However, I feel sure that Joe would agree that it’s good to disagree and, in getting us thinking and talking about these things, for him it’s job well done.

Performance date: 21 August 2015

the christians

Not being a great admirer of the divisions that religions have brought to the World, I felt less than enthused by the prospect of learning more of divisions within one specific religion. Lucas Hnath’s play begins with an all-female choir singing gospel songs; the setting is a thriving American church, but its Pastor (William Gaminara) is about to preach a sermon questioning the existence of Hell, bringing about a rift in the church led by its Associate Pastor (Stefan Adegbola). Hnath argues both cases with great clarity and weaves in personal relationships of protagonists and church politics to make an absorbing 85 minutes of subdued drama that is acted convincingly. However, from the perspective of a bystander, the big question is why these people can’t just get their acts together and practice what they preach.

Performance date: 21 August 2015