Archive for August, 2016

The Entertainer**** (Garrick Theatre)

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Theatre

The-Entertainer-Kenneth-Branagh-Theatre-Company-Kenneth-Branagh-Archie-Rice-Credit-Johan-Persson-01259-e1472586940690This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In his distinguished career, Kenneth Branagh has not strayed for too long from paths trodden by Laurence Olivier before him, perhaps making it inevitable that he would get round one day to Olivier’s most famous contemporary theatre role, Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

The play first appeared at London’s Royal Court Court Theatre in 1957, the year after Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had rocked the establishment with the rants of “angry young man” Jimmy Porter, a role revived on the London stage in 1989 by Branagh. Both plays emerged from a post-war Britain of austerity and social change, but, although Rob Ashford’s new production makes no attempt to update it, The Entertainer can be seen to be built on fewer themes that are specific to its own era and, as such, it is the richer and more multi-layered of the two. Every generation witnesses change and the powerful image of a performer clinging to the stage long after his audience has begun to depart still resonates.

It is 1956 and British Music Hall is all but dead, a metaphor perhaps used by Osborne to highlight a decaying class structure and a crumbling empire. Billy Rice (Gawn Grainger), now an elderly, racist curmudgeon, has retired from the stage, but his son, Archie, still treads the boards in places such as the often-mentioned West Hartlepool, living a shambolic life and boasting that he has not paid income tax since 1936. When Archie appears first, he is tap-dancing inside a beam from a single spotlight behind him, in effect showing us a man who has cut himself off from reality existing only inside a showbiz cocoon.

Branagh strikes a very precise balance in performing Archie’s song, dance and joke routines. He is just about good enough to suggest that the character could have had a passable act in his heyday and awful enough to make a full house in the Garrick seem out of place. Archie’s signature song, Why Should I Care?, also reflects his attitude to family life. He tells his daughter Jean (Sophie McShera) that he is “dead behind the eyes”, unfeeling, but, when tragedy strikes the family, a subtle change in Branagh’s demeanour and a suppressed shriek reveal that callousness is just another part of his act.

Accepting his own fallibilities, resigning himself to doing nothing about them and resorting to performing to his family when he should be attending to their concerns, Archie is not an “angry middle-aged man”. However, Jimmy Porter’s spirit is revived in his son Frank, played with earnest conviction by Jonah Hauer-King. Frank has served a prison sentence for refusing conscription and now he looks on his family from the perspective of an outsider and gives voice to Osborne’s cynical views on British life and his sarcastic patriotism.

Archie’s second wife Phoebe is step-mother to Jean and mother to Frank and another son, Mick (unseen) who is a willing conscript, serving in the army in the Suez conflict. Greta Scacchi brings out Phoebe’s vulnerability touchingly and shows us the pain of a woman who wants little more than to be treated with dignity and respect, but finds herself neglected and always likely to lose everything that she values because of her husband’s philandering with younger women.

Christopher Oram’s set design overemphasises the play’s theatrical context, placing a second ornate proscenium arch at the rear of the stage and electronic boards at the sides, numbering scenes 1 – 13 as if they are turns in a variety show, This provides an unnecessary distraction, but, overall, Ashford gives us a worthy revival of Osborne’s cutting and often sour examination of the links between show business and real life.

Performance date: 30 August 2016

Photo: Johan Persson

trh-2

burnt part

In terms of geography, the distance between small town Pennsylvania and the West Virginia mountains may not be too great, but, in theatrical terms, Groundhog Day (set in the former) and this show (the latter) could hardly be further apart. The high production values of the show at the Old Vic linger in the memory, but this imagination of a vast outdoor landscape in a bare 90-seat studio space in Finsbury Park is, in a very different way, equally stunning. Seeing two brilliant new musicals in the same week, I must have done something right for a change.

This is the European premiere of an Off-Briadway hit set in 1962. Mariana Elder’s book tells the story  of two teenagers who lost their father in a mining accident ten years earlier. The older, Jake (Chris Jenkins) has taken on the role of family breadwinner and plans to go to work in the mine when it reopens, but the younger, 14-year-old Pete (Joseph Peacock) plans to blow up the mine so that it remains a permanent shrine. With his reluctant friend Dusty (Ryan Heenan, the show’s strongest singer), Pete sets off on a trek through the mountains to the mine, picking up town outcast, the feral Frances (Grace Osborn) on the way. Jake and his friend Chet (David Leopold) set off in pursuit.

Terrific performances from five talented young actors are at the heart of Matthew Iliffe’s thrilling production, but the more senior David Haydn also impresses as the John Wayne-like embodiment of heroic figures from American legends, as pictured in Pete’s mind. The staging relies heavily on audience imagination, as the characters clamber up mountains, crawl though tunnels and slide along precipices, the actors using only ropes, a few chairs and their miming skills.

The songs (music Chris Miller, lyrics Nathan Tyson) are broadly in the Bluegrass style, with a little rock thrown in, and they work perfectly in the context of the show’s setting and in driving the narrative. The story builds to a Field of Dreams type climax that is numbingly touching and rounds off a production that is small but near-perfectly formed. There’s a gem in them thar hills.

Performance date: 25 August 2016

Groundhog Day***** (Old Vic)

Posted: August 29, 2016 in Theatre

groundhog dayFlops and near-misses flow in and out of theatres, but, every so often, a new show comes along to remind us why being a musical theatre enthusiast is so, so worthwhile. This wildly witty, magically melodic, eye-popping extravaganza is definitely one to relish.

Like so many before it, this musical is adapted from a film, a notably brilliant one in which Bill Murray played Phil Connors, a TV weather man, assigned to broadcast from the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney on 2nd February, Groundhog Day. Contemptuous of the place and its people, he finds himself in a nightmare time warp where the same day keeps repeating until he changes it bit by bit and eventually gets it right. It is a fantastical adult fairy tale, but Matthew Warchus’ swirling production never allows time for disbelief.

The big surprise is that anyone could ever surpass Murray as the egotistical, sarcastic and cynical Connors, but Broadway actor Andy Karl pulls it off with something to spare in an unforgettable performance. Carlyss Peer also nails it as Rita, the grounded assistant producer who is at odds with Connors on the first 2nd Feb, but warms to him gradually once he starts to tweak the day. Georgina Hagen appears only briefly as Nancy, casually bedded by Connors in the knowledge that there will be no payback on 3rd Feb, but she gets one of the show’s best songs, Playing Nancy, to open the second act.

Many of the songs, in a variety of styles, are memorable, both for their melodies and the cleverness of their lyrics. The creative team of Danny Rubin (book), Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) and Warchus has hit gold before with Matilda and this really is a collaborative effort, all the ingredients blending together perfectly, Peter Darling’s lively choreography and Ellen Kane’s bright costumes and revolving sets adding to the mix. If this production makes it to Broadway as scheduled, it could take something extraordinary to beat it in the 2017 Tony Awards, but, hopefully, an extended West End run will also follow. The day that you see this show will be one that you will want repeated again and again and again and….

Performance date: 24 August 2016

Edinburgh Round-up

Posted: August 29, 2016 in Theatre

In addition to those already reviewed, here is a round-up of other productions seen during a hectic week in Edinburgh:

hamlet in bedHamlet in Bed** (Pleasance Courtyard)

American actors Annette O’Toole and Michael Laurence both strike me as having admirable qualities and I would happily see both again, so long as it could be in something other than this. Laurence’s own play centres on a 39-year-old actor obsessed with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who picks out his Gertrude, a long-retired actress who had been a notable Ophelia many years earlier, and sets about rehearsing the arras scene, working through his own Oedipal issues at the same time. Leaving aside that O’Toole looks at least 20 years too young to have s son aged 39, the play struggles to gain any credibility. In fairness, it must be noted that many in the audience applauded enthusiastically at the end, indicating that I could have been out of step in finding the play sleep-inducing pseudo intellectual psycho-babble of the sort that can give Off-Off-Broadway a dodgy name.

Performance date: 8 August 2016

 

Joe-Stilgoe-Edinbu-new-landscapeJoe Stilgoe: Songs on Film**** (Assembly Checkpoint)

There can be few better ways of winding down after a hard day’s theatre reviewing than spending an hour or so in the company of Joe Stilgoe. The show is exactly what it says in the title, with Stilgoe performing a range of songs from films, accompanying himself on piano, with the help of a bass player and a drummer who “looks like the love child of Novak Djokovic and Nicola Sturgeon.” He does too! The poster lies, as there is no Singing in the Rain, but Stilgoe would get plenty of chances to perform that one, outside in soggy Edinburgh. My favourite number in the show is a percussion-backed Rhythm of Life fromSweet Charity, but there are no duds. Stilgoe does not bring into play the improv skills seen so memorably at the beginning of the Old Vic’s High Society last year, rather the show is slick, polished, and, of course, backed by an album.  Still, hard not to enjoy it.

Performance date: 8 August 2016

 

i'm doing this for youI’m Doing This For You*** (Summerhall)

Appearing in a platinum blond wig, Haley McGee looks a little like Marilyn Monroe and sounds a lot like Ruby Wax in this hour-long comedy routine. The flimsy pretext is that the audience has been assembled to spring a Birthday surprise on McGee’s ex-boyfriend, a very shy budding comedian.We wait and wait and then….It is wafer thin, but there are some very funny moments, spiked with nice touches of pathos and McGee has enough charisma to just about carry it off.

Performance date: 9 August 2016

 

MORE MINI REVIEWS TO FOLLOW

 

Woman-in-Black-2016-courtesy-of-Tristram-Kenton_10-e1471808736783For 27 years, I have passed on this one mainly because ghosts and horror are not really my thing. Not for the first time, I have been terribly wrong. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, written in Gothic style, is ingenious and literate. It is very different from the original and from the film version, being uniquely theatrical and indeed partly about the structure and presentation of a work of theatre. Defying expectations, there are very few superficial shocks and only basic special effects. The tension emanates from the writing and the performances. Enjoyment of the production was the icing on the cake, because the main reason for my attendance was to meet the actors who will be taking the play on tour, two very welcoming and genial gents indeed. Here is my account of the meeting, originally written for The Reviews Hub

INTERVIEW: David Acton and Matthew Spencer talk about taking ghosts on the road

David Acton and Matthew Spencer are not the first actors ro appear in the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Over the last 27 years, shows have come and gone at London’s famous Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but, across the road from its stage door at the Fortune Theatre, this one production has been scaring audiences out of their wits throughout that time and it continues to go strong. Now another production of it is about to embark upon a long national tour, the two actors having already stepped into their roles in the West End. Stephen Bates went to meet them after.

The actors’ 34-venue marathon will take them from Inverness to Exeter, Belfast to Norwich and most places in between. When the tour ends in Cardiff, it will be mid-Summer 2017. They had never met prior to rehearsals and both admit that their prime concern when signing up for the tour was that they would not get on, in which case. Spencer says: “the next nine months would feel like two years.” Happily, their fears were unfounded and they are happy that the essential on-stage chemistry is there.

This is quite a scary play, so does performing it give them nightmares? Spencer confesses: ” I had a few nightmares while we were rehearsing this…I find that, especially if you’re dealing with plays that have a kind of dark theme, the rehearsal process is the time… you’re doing it all day for two or three days in a row, that’s the time when you can have nightmares and I did have a few nightmares about squeaky things. I mean I had the usual actor’s anxiety/nightmares, but also things from the play, definitely.”

Asked if they believe in ghosts themselves, Acton replies quickly “No, I don’t think I do” adding later:”but I think I’d like to, it’s one of those things I’d never rule out…I’d love to see one and then I would prove myself wrong.,,it’s hard not to believe that they don’r exist somewhere, somehow”. Spencer nods agreement.

Acton delights in telling how this production first emerged, almost by accident, from the bar in Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1987. Few could have predicted then that it would have a West End run that is second only to The Mousetrap for non-musicals. So how do the actors explain its longevity? Both are clear that the secret lies in the fact that it offers far more than merely superficial thrills. Acton thinks that it is a very literate play, adding: “it’s about theatre, it deals with themes of loss and death, I think it’s a very sad story”

Hill’s novel has been turned into a film, but people find the stage version very different, Spencer explaining: “what I love about this version is that, even if people know the story, it’s a reimagining of that story and told in a different way, so, even if you know it intimately, you’re offered something new in the form that it’s told.” The novel is now on GCSE syllabuses and the actors are expecting that students will help to fill seats on the tour, which includes some very large houses.

Acton, a seasoned Shakespearean, is returning to the role of Arthur Kipps that he first played here at the Fortune for nine months, four years ago, he quips: “still playing the old man, no chance of playing the young one, that’s gone”. He adds: “I loved doing it so much the first time that I wondered would it be nice to do it again?…and when the opportunity came up, I did jump at it, because it’s on tour, playing different theatres with someone new… and, actually it is such a pleasure to play and…from the inside of the play, just in terms of the quality of the writing, it’s a joy to speak and a joy to play.” He continues to enthuse: “it is seamless, with with bits of Susan Hill being lifted out (from the novel) going into bits that Stephen Mallatratt has invented,,,he has got her tone absolutely spot on.”

The programme reveals it, so nothing is given away by saying that the production is a two-hander, Mallatratt’s ingenuity having compressed ten or so characters from the novel. Ironically, Acton has neither met nor even seen the person who appears uncredited as the woman of the play’s title. A suggestion of the supernatural perhaps?

Lighting, sound and fog effects play a big part in the production, but they have not given the actors any problems so far. Spencer says: “there’s actually not really many special effects…I’ve done plays that are far more technically complicated and intricate than this, but what’s wonderful is that it feels like it’s complicated and intricate even though it isn’t”. He was in the original cast of Headlong’s 1984, so he is well placed to judge how technically difficult a production is.

Becoming the modern equivalent of vagabond actors may have its drawbacks, but a month’s break during the panto season will allow Acton and Spencer to renew acquaintances with loved ones. They relish the prospect of what is in store for them. Acton enthuses: “I love touring, I love train journeys, my motorbike, airports…landladies and you can leave them after a week”. Spencer admits that there are pros and cons to touring, but says “the doing of the show I find much more satisfying on tour…you get to know a show very well and the audiences will be different everywhere you go.”

Performance/interview date: 18 August 2016

Photo: Tristram Kenton

trh-2

 

 

 

red shedMark Thomas has a talent for constructing and presenting shows that go beyond the stand-up comedy with which he is normally associated and I greatly enjoyed his Cuckooed, a story of intrigue and personal betrayal, seen on this same stage two years ago. His political allegiances were obvious in that show, but they hardly mattered as his themes were universal. However, this time he falls flat on his face with a show that is politics and little else.

The title refers to Wakefield’s Labour club, but the show’s subject is the 1984/85 Miners Strike. Yes, after more than 3o years, he is till going on about it, peddling that stale old distortion of events in which many of the key facts are overlooked, Margaret Thatcher is depicted as an antichrist, the prime villain of the piece is not even mentioned by name and the word “defeat” is never uttered. Come on Mark, it may also be nice to pretend that England did not lose to Iceland in June this year, but is it not healthier to accept the truth and move forward?

The conceit is that Thomas is trying to retrace his steps in a 1985 march by miners back to work. As he shows no other outward signs of dementia, his claim, that the event is engrained deeply in his memory and yet he cannot even remember the name of the town in which it took place, stretches credibility to its limits. Inevitably, Thomas throws in a few neat ad-libs, but, otherwise the show is almost a humour-free zone and he has to rely on the feeble device of getting audience members on stage to hold masks in front of their faces to keep any sort of interest alive. It is all presented with the smug, patronising air of a Londoner newly discovering that intelligent life exists north of Watford.

Notwithstanding all the piffle, there are a couple of times when Thomas gets it right. In a long statistics-based rant, he highlights the ongoing plight of former mining communities. It is indeed a national disgrace that areas blighted by industrial change must wait decades for action to revive them, but Thomas cannot see beyond blaming the demonic Thatcher. As Neil Kinnock has pointed out forcefully, blame in the 1980s for failures to deal with the effects of pit closures lay jointly with the Thatcher government and the afore-unmentioned trade union leader. Failures have continued with subsequent administrations, including 13 years of Labour government. Afflicted areas now need fresh, 21st Century ideas, clear strategic planning and sustained investment. Nobody seems to have a clue where these things may come from, least of all Thomas.

The second time that Thomas hits the nail on the head comes when he talks about voters in the EU referendum declaring a plague on the entire political establishment, but he does so with pride rather than alarm. History has taught us that, whenever the disadvantaged disconnect from those who exist to represent them, they become prey to those who seek to exploit them. As voters turn away from a Labour party that they see as no longer fit for purpose and towards UKIP, Thomas and his like continue to perpetuate myths about the Miners’ Strike and cling to a vision of Socialism that is at least half a century out of date. They are not helping to find solutions for people in real need, they are making themselves part of their problems.

Performance date: 12 August 2016

Allegro**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 20, 2016 in Theatre

allegroIt is not often that an audience can go to see a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical without being able to hum the tunes as they walk into the theatre. Here we have that rarity, a R&H flop that managed to run on Broadway for just a few months in 1947/48 thanks largely to advance sales generated by expectations lifted by its two predecessors – Oklahoma! and Carousel. This production marks the show’s European professional premiere.

We know now that, if anyone is going to give the kiss of life to a lost musical, it is the team of producer Danielle Tarrento, director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud and that their choice of venue is likely to be Southwark Playhouse. This must have been by far their biggest challenge and turning the show into what we see here could well be their biggest triumph. The story is an affirmation of small town American values in the early decades of the 20th Century; it takes in the realities of life and alludes to the hardships of the great depression, perhaps a musical equivalent to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. However, it can never escape from being cloyingly sentimental and every turn in the plot becomes obvious at least half an hour in advance (except for the refreshingly staged first half hour of course).

With the exception of the tune of Mountain Greenery (written by Richard Rodgers for another show several years earlier), which is heard in a dance sequence, none of the songs is familiar, although some of them are lovely. Perhaps the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II are so well integrated into his own book that it has been difficult to find a context for the songs outside the show. This is often the case with the songs of Stephen Sondheim, something that comes to mind because the staging here is rather like that frequently given to his shows, which encourages seeking out elements of Sondheim’s style that could trace back to his mentor.

The story relates to Joseph Taylor Jr (Gary Tushaw), the grandson and son of small town doctors who becomes a small town doctor until he is lured to the bigcity by his ambitious lady love. In common with several other R&H musicals, the first half is much stronger than the second, but the glory of this production is Southerland’s staging, adopting the traverse configuration used in this space for Grand Hotel last year. With stepladders, elevated planks and platforms being moved around, the production is packed with vibrant energy, dazzling dance routines and outstanding ensemble performances, all of which are enough to transcend shortcomings in the show itself.

Performance date: 16 August 2016