Archive for January, 2016

funny-girl

From Hedda to Cilla, Sheridan Smith loves filling big boots, but Barbara Streisand? Come on! This musical, telling the story of Fanny Brice’s rise from humble Brooklyn beginnings to become star of the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920’s and of her ill-fated marriage to reckless gambler Nick Arnstein, is in many ways mediocre, not a patch on for example Gypsy. But it is an incredible star vehicle and, up to now, only one star (with her understudy) has ever jumped aboard it in the the UK. Courage is indeed needed, but, from her first appearance as a star-struck school girl to her last as a distraught leading lady abandoned by her husband, Smith nails it, absolutely, utterly and completely. No-one can cry real tears while wearing a broad smile on her face quite like this lady; physical comedy, gentle humour and heartbreaking drama all fit comfortably within her range and she has the audience in the palm of her hands throughout. Isobel Lennart’s book (revised by Harvey Fierstein) has plenty of wit, but the story falls into the “heard it all before” category. Don’t Rain On My Parade is easily the best of the songs (music Jules Styne, lyrics Bob Merrill) which are generally better than okay. Personally, I have always found the lyrics of People particularly excruciating, but once Smith starts to sell the song, who cares? Director Michael Mayer has assembled possibly the biggest company of actors and musicians yet seen at the small Menier and choreographer Lynne Page makes full use of the limited space. However, there is clear potential for further improvement when the show transfers to the Savoy. Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother and Joel Montague as her neglected mentor stand out among the support. Little romantic chemistry develops between Smith and Darius Campbell as Arnstein, but perhaps that is how it is supposed to be. In the end, this production is only really about the funny girl herself and Smith’s performance, coming so soon after Imelda Staunton’s Mamma Rose, makes London theatregoers entitled to consider themselves “the luckiest people in the World”.

Performance date: 8 January 2016

Grey Gardens**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 14, 2016 in Theatre

GreyGardensWeb

If history can be condensed into headlines and footnotes, the story told here falls most definitely into the latter category. In 1941, young Presidential hopeful Joe Kennedy (Aaron Sidwell) arrives at Grey Gardens, home in the Hamptons of the “aristocratic” Bouvier clan, to seal his engagement to Little Edie (Rachel Anne Rayham), daughter of the flamboyant Edith (Jenna Russell), described as “that worst of things, an actress without a stage”. Mother’s antics disrupt daughter’s plans, but maybe the actress gene has been passed on and the two women embark on a lifelong journey of mutual loathing and mutual dependence. Joe was fated to be killed in action three years later, but the great irony is that Jaqueline Bouvier (seen in this show as a little girl) was to become the bride of his younger brother Jack and eventually ascend to the White House. This musical (book Doug Wright, music Scott Frankel, lyrics Michael Korie) sheds light on the uneasy flirtation between politics and showbiz that, in many ways, characterised the Kennedy presidency. It was a success on Broadway and is now getting its UK premiere. The first half, set almost entirely in 1941, flows smoothly, mixing 40s swing music with simple songs in the style of Ivor Novello and Edith’s protege, gay pianist Gould (Jeremy Legat) is on hand to provide accompaniment and bitchy asides. However, this part of the show is not entirely satisfying in establishing the mother/daughter relationship that is at the heart of the story. Partly this is due to Rayham’s Little Edie being more like a precocious teenager than the “Miss Body Beautiful” aged 24 that she actually was, but also Russell looks uncomfortable when projecting the conflicting roles that life has cast her into. The second act fast forwards to 1973 and a media frenzy over Jacqueline (now Mrs Onassis) allowing her aunt and cousin to live reclusive lives at Grey Gardens in squalid conditions with over 50 cats. Octogenarian Edith is now played by Sheila Hancock, with wild white hair, complaining at the difficulties of bringing up a 56-year-old daughter. Russell steps down a generation to play Little Edie, her bald head hidden beneath a variety of hoods. The scene is reminiscent of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with a similar mic of pathos, comedy and camp horror. Russell and Hancock set the show ablaze with an unforgettable double act, each taking turns to have intimate conversations with the audience and to hurl vicious insults at each other. Edith still has her male sidekick, Gould having been replaced by Jerry, a dim-witted errand boy (Sidwell, unrecognisable from Act I), but Brooks (Ako Mitchell) remains their trusty servant, albeit 32 years older. The message is that the show must go on in the face of any adversity, as true for politics as for show business. Director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud know how to use every inch of this space to full advantage, even when negotiating the clutter of Tom Rogers’ set and a nine piece band, conducted by Michael Bradley, provides the richest sound heard here since Titanic. Southerland and his team have achieved a string of successes on the fringe by breathing fresh life into forgotten American musicals, but they have yet to get a West End transfer. Star casting could well help then to break through that barrier this time.

Performance date: 7 January 2016

Hapgood**** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: January 7, 2016 in Theatre

hapgppd

When it first appeared in 1988, Tom Stoppard’s espionage comedy/thriller may have been viewed as a requiem for the Cold War era, then drawing to a close. Now, Mr Putin could have given it renewed topical relevance. Stoppard’s cynical take is that all the MI6, CIA and KGB shenanigans were comparable to games of chess and served no greater purpose. He makes his case emphatically, beginning with a farcical exchange of packages in the changing room of a swimming pool and taking us through the duplicitous dealings of double/treble/quadruple agents. Elizabeth Hapgood (Lisa Dillon) is a very modern figure, juggling being a single mother with her role as a prominent secret agent, working alongside Blair (Tim McMullan), Ridley (Gerald Kyd) and her “Joe” (the Russian she recruited), Kerner (Alec Newman) to ferret out the traitor in their midst. It is all familiar from books, films and television, but novel for the theatre and it is this freshness that helps Howard Barker’s well paced production to glide over the absurdities of the plot. Ashley Martin Davis’ set with banks of television screens changing constantly also helps, as do four superb leading performances. Rambling passages of vintage, mind boggling Stoppard do not overwhelm the play nor interrupt its flow and some welcome human touches are surprisingly moving. Stoppard has a lot to say about relations between Russia and the West and delving deeper into the text could prove worthwhile. However, on a purely superficial level, Hapgood gives us one of the most entertaining evenings in the theatre seen for quite a while.

Performance date: 6 January 2016

les liaisons

The 18th Century French epistolary novel upon which Christopher Hampton’s play is based has inspired numerous adaptations for stage, big screen and television, with the result that the biggest enemy of Josie Rourke’s near-impeccable revival is over familiarity. The play is perfect for the three-sided Donmar, Tom Scutt’s shabby palatial sets making us feel part of the goings on in the sitting rooms and boudoirs of the idle aristocracy in Louis XIV’s France. Janet McTeer dominates the production as the scheming and manipulative La Marquise de Merteuil who wrecks lives for nothing better than her own amusement and purrs at the devastation that she causes. Le Vicomte de Valmont is her former lover and co-conspirator, seducing women at will, but, as played by Dominic West, he is her lap dog, blindly obeying her commands against his own more noble instincts. Elaine Cassidy, Morfydd Clark and Edward Holcroft are convincing as the pair’s not quite innocent victims. Rourke’s achievement in her slick production is to tell a story that we feel we know too well, yet still make it absorbing.

Performance date: 4 January 2016