Archive for October, 2016

amadeusThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of taking residence in its Southbank home, the National Theatre is dipping into the treasure chest that holds its greatest hits to bring out this witty gem, give it a good polish and return it to the Olivier stage where it opened in 1979. The result is that Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s fantasia on themes of hatred, jealousy and Divine Providence, garlanded with Oliviers, Tonys and (for the cinema adaptation) Oscars, can be seen to have lost little of its powers to tease the intellect and intrigue,

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died a pauper in 1791, having composed close to 100 symphonies, concertos and operas but still working on his Requiem Mass for himself. He was 35. Antonio Salieri, Viennese Court Composer is seen in the play as Mozart’s adversary, acutely aware that the earthly rewards accruing from his own mediocrity are no match for the prize awaiting his rival – immortality. Just as today we might look at, let’s say, a Lottery winner and ask “why him?”, Salieri looks at Mozart and questions why God chose to bestow the gifts of genius on this unworthy recipient and he declares war not only on him but on God Himself. So, Shaffer asks, did God reclaim his prodigy or did Salieri send him on his way?

Shaffer;s play is part thoughtful meditation on the unfairness of fate and the darker side of human nature and part high-brow pantomime. Director Michael Longhurst presents it on a grand scale, opening out the vast expanse of the Olivier Stage, filling it with singers, musicians, courtiers and milling crowds and then encouraging Lucian Msamati, prowling around as Salieri, to command every square inch of it. Chloe Lamford;s costumes and ever-changing set designs add to the rich look of the production.

By integrating Southbmk Sinfonia into his production, Longhurst risks allowing the music to overpower the drama, but the move pays rich dividends, When Salieri reads a new work by Mozart, anguished and disbelieving, we can hear the music for ourselves and the collision of opposing forces is thrilling. Under Music Director Simon Slater, who also contributes scene-linking compositions, the musical sequences prove to be superb additions to the play.

Msamati’s Salieri is demonic, a man who could take his place alongside Iago in the rankings of theatre villains, only a couple of child murders behind Richard III. He confides in and colludes with the audience as he plots, shares his feelings of shame and inadequacy and rants at the Almighty. However, his mitigating plea could be that Adam Gillen’s Mozart is so unspeakably vile that any rational person would feel an obligation to extinguish him. Vulgar, coarse, ill-mannered and with a voice that sounds like a creaking door, this Mozart is the antithesis of the music that comes from inside him.

Karla Crome is affectingly normal as Constanze, the common girl that Mozart marries against his father’s wishes and Fleur de Bray, who also sings soprano, catches the eye and the ear as the mistress of both rival composers. Tom Edden’s pompous, dim-witted Emperor Joseph II proves ill-suited to the role of patron of the arts, reacting to a long silence in a performance of The Marriage of Figaro by asking “is it modern?” As so often in battles between the establishment and the outsider, the establishment, in the form of Salieri’s ordinary work,wins, but only for now.

Running at around three hours (including interval), the play has its longueurs, but, if Shaffer’s style sometimes resembles a Philosophy for Beginners tutorial, he wraps it all in packaging so intensely theatrical that we forgive him. In truth the play may not be so profound as it pretends to be, but this revival of it is still profoundly entertaining.

Performance date: 26 October 2016

Photo: Marc Brenner

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Side Show** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: October 27, 2016 in Theatre

sideshow_1000x1000px-webWhen it begins with Let’s Look at the Freaks and a parade itht includes a bearded lady, a three-legged man, a dog boy and a savage canibal, this American off Broadway musical looks set to proceed along the Rocky Horror… road and give us a gaudy spectacle in the worst possible taste. But then the spotlight falls on conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who proclaim “we want to be like everyone else” and it becomes clear instantly that we will be taken in exactly the opposite direction. This is rather a pity.

Set in the era of the Great Depression and inspired by a true story, the show follows the fortunes of the inseparable sisters as they are lured away from a Texas circus side show run by the cruel “Sir” (Chris Howell) and follow two handsome young “princes” (Dominic Hodson and Haydn Oakley) to try their luck in Vaudeville and then Hollywood. Higher class freak shows maybe, but still freak shows and all the girls want, we are told repeatedly, is…see above. When they start pairing up with suitors, the mind boggles at the logistics, but Bill Russell’s book dares not to go there. He seems so intent on avoiding giving offence to anyone that the show becomes drained of almost all humour, leaving a predictable romantic melodrama that frequently gets mired in treacle.

Henry Krieger’s score and Russell’s lyrics compound the problem with a succession of melodic, sentimental songs. mostly very similar, that merge together in the mind to become one. There are two notable exceptions which come together in the second act. One Plus One Equals Three has rare wit and is staged imaginatively; and Jay Marsh as Jake, the twins’ devoted minder, lets rip on You Should Be Loved, bringing the evening as close as it gets to a genuine showstopper. Matthew Cole’s inventive choreography adds vitality and colour to Hannah Chissick’s, production which gets little help from a lazy set design consisting of little more than dozens of fairground lights.

The biggest consolation is the ace casting of Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford who step into the conjoined costumes. Seeing and hearing each of these ladies individually would be worth more than the ticket price here, but their harmonious duets are an absolute treat. Sadly, neither gets much chance to flex her acting muscles, the separate characters being drawn weakly and it is not until near the end that we get any clues as to how the twins feel towards each other.

Time and again, opportunities for dark humour pass by and we are left with a curate’s egg, good in parts, but disappointing overall. With so many great musicals arriving in London this year, the relative position that this one assumes is summed up by its title.

Performance date: 25 October 2016

from-ibiza-to-the-norfolk-broadsThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Yes, we may all have to adjust our holiday habits as a result of the falling pound, but Adrian Barry’s 75-minute one-act play has nothing to do with that. Instead, the title is taken from the lyric of David Bowie’s Life on Mars and the play tells of a teenager’s journey to find his father or, perhaps, David Bowie himself.

On his 18th birthday in 2013, Martin is looked on as the weirdo of the dreary town near Northampton where he lives. Bullied by other boys, he suffers from eating disorders and is self-harming. His mother is a chain-smoking alcoholic and his father had walked out on the family 16 years earlier, leaving behind only a box full of Bowie memorabilia and an envelope to be given to him on this very day. “Parents f**k you up” complains Martin.

Alex Walton is captivating, both when narrating the story in the third person and when switching to play Martin and other characters, Berry’s descriptive writing is vivid and his direction brings out the central character’s tormented isolation which leads to a pop idol becoming his only friend. Rob Newman voices Bowie offstage and Margaret Campbell can be heard as Martin’s counsellor. Back projections add flashes of nostalgia for the 1970s, but the overriding tone is one of mystery, as we wait to discover what Martin;s journey will bring,

The envelope given to Martin contains a tenner and a sort of treasure trail map leading him around places in London connected to Bowie. He starts at Stockwell Primary school, winds his way through the southern suburbs to Croydon, which Bowie despised, and stops off at a pub where he performs an excruciating karaoke version of Starman. Then it is on to Soho, a studio where Bowie recorded and Denmark Street where he once hung out with legends. There are touches of humour along the way but not enough of the music that so entrances father and son.

As the journey progresses, the darkness underlying Bowie’s fantasy worlds begins to surface and Martin finds parallels between his own life and his idol’s troubled early years. It is suggested that the singer’s bizarre creations and his androgynous image came from reactions to tragedy and adolescent rebellion against orthodoxy. However, Martin is not equipped to follow further along Bowie’s path to fame and fortune.

In its later stages, the play is far removed from a euphoric celebration of heroes; it has become a sad lament on behalf of the lost and the lonely, a sobering reflection on the flip side of popular culture.

Performance date: 20 October 2016

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Ragtime***** (Charing Cross Theatre)

Posted: October 20, 2016 in Theatre

ragtime-webback_showcaseimageEL Doctrow’s sprawling 1975 novel Ragtime has a title that begs for it to be adapted into a musical, but the case for the work itself, an extraordinary amalgam of fact and fiction, was less clear. Until now. This show, a multiple Tony Award winner in 1998, has failed to make much of an impression over here previously, making it just the kind of sick patient that director Thom Southerland loves giving the kiss of life to, usually at Southwark Playhouse. Moving now to a subterranean venue that has for so long struggled to find an identity, he not only revives a great musical, but he also makes the theatre itself surface as an overnight star, a halfway house between fringe and West End.

Terence McNally’s skilful adaptation allows Southerland to create what resembles a giant mosaic of America at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Still bearing the scars of civil war, it is seen as a nation starting to look outward to the rest of the world, but at odds with itself as it embarks on a journey that would lead to it becoming the dominant global power. It was to be a century of opportunity, hope, discovery and conflict, a century that would see the motion picture industry blossom and the Broadway musical emerge alongside it as the greatest new art form. It is all here.

If the scope seems too vast, it helps that a single opening song can replace dozens of pages in the novel devoted to establishing characters and setting scenes. Lynn Ahrens’ precise lyrics rarely stray far from their primary purpose, which is to tell stories. Doctrow’s original work often feels fragmented, jumping almost randomly between characters and storylines, but McNally has consigned several characters to the peripheries and Southerland merges one scene into the next seamlessly, aided by music. A two-level set, with mobile units that incorporate steps, is becoming the director’s trademark, but it has never been used to better effect than in the design by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher, which helps the show to flow. Howard Hudson’s lighting shows off both the sets and Jonathan Lipman’s period costumes to brilliant effect.

Southerland mixes musicians with actors in the ensemble and playing small roles, the integration giving the feeling that music is very much part of the age  Illusionist Harry Houdini (Christopher Dickens) carries his piano accordion and glamorous theatre star Evelyn Nesbitt (Joanna Hickman) is a cellist. Other figures from real life – anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Cutko), car maker Henry Ford (Tom Giles), banker JP Morgan (Anthony Cable) and African American community leader Booker T Washington (Nolan Frederick) – appear fleetingly as they touch the lives of Doctrow’s fictional characters.

The show begins by telling the stories of three separate families who gradually become entwined with each other. Coalhouse Walker (Ako Mitchell) is a black pianist who fathers a child with Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng), abandons her and then repents. “Father” (Earl Carpenter) is an adventurer who departs on a polar expedition and “Mother” (Anita Louise Combe), left at home, gives refuge to Sarah and her baby. Tateh (Gary Tushaw) is a widower, an immigrant arriving from Latvia with a young daughter that he struggles to feed until he seizes at opportunities and becomes a pioneer in the movies. The characters go into a crucible to form a narrative driven by the racial injustices and social tensions that beset America at that time and still today.

Stephen Flaherty’s score includes influences not only of Scott Joplin-style rags, but also other American music such as gospel, country and blues. Yes there may be too many soaring anthems in the final stages, but, by then, the show has conjured up so much magic that most will not complain. The singing, particularly by Mitchell, Saayemg and Combe is superb, so strong in fact that it has given the Evening Standard critic a headache (poor thing!). This sublime production often comes so close to perfection that it is difficult to suppress tears of joy.

Performance date: 19 October 2016

moby_dick_mainThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

f making a musical out of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick seems an absurd idea, then making a musical out of a bunch of schoolgirls making a musical out of that novel must be more so by several multiples. Nonetheless, this is exactly the premise behind this 1983 show, a collaboration between Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden, which had a decent run at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in 1991 and has achieved a growing cult status since.

The cramped Union Theatre is closer to the size of the school hall where all the action takes place and, therefore, a much more apt setting for the show than a conventional theatre. Furthermore, this time round, the fun is not going to be spoiled by having had to pay West End ticket prices.

The musical within a musical created by the pupils of St Godley’s Academy for Girls, to be performed by themselves and their teachers, has clear influences of pantomime, “Moby Dick Whittington” perhaps, and draws from the same dictionary of double entendres. The girls even have their own “dame” in the form of their headmistress, played with relish by Anton Stephans, although, when she assumes the role of Captain Ahab, a man playing a woman playing a man becomes a bit of a stretch.

Andrew Wright’s bouncy revival rarely flags, making it all awful fun rather than just plain awful. Perhaps it is difficult to go wrong when the humour derives from the show being terrible, meaning that the worse it gets the better it gets. Hockey sticks and tennis rackets serve as makeshift props, blue sheets become the rolling ocean and Moby just has to be seen to be believed.

Ahab leaves a wife onshore who, as played by Brenda Edwards, has a voice to be heard hundreds of miles out at sea and the crew members of his ship are all played with boisterous energy as they set sail to hunt down the whale that bit off their captain’s leg. They include the pushy Ishmael (Rachel Anne Rayham), the coffee-drinking Starbuck (Laura Mansell), the slutty Stubb (Aimee Hodnett) and the courageous Pip (Glen Facey). Moby Dick himself is voiced by Russell Grant who, perhaps, ought to have seen in the stars what would be coming after him.

A four-piece band, under the musical direction of Lee Freeman, accompanies the songs which let down the tone of the show by being surprisingly good. They merit no awards for originality and they make cheeky nods to almost every hit musical of the 1980s, but they are pleasingly tuneful, sufficiently varied to sustain a show that is almost sung through and, in chorus numbers, suited perfectly to the predominantly female harmonies.

A bizarre cross between the St Trinians films and Jaws set to music, the show is unashamedly silly, but the company of 10 packing this small venue clearly has a whale of a time, so it makes sense to go with the flow.

Performance date: 18 October 2016

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one-night-in-miamiA meeting between four men that took place more than half a century ago and an imagined discussion about social change are hardly the most thrilling starting points for a play. No plot. apart from that given by history, no dramatic incidents, just talk and argument (plus a couple of songs), which makes it remarkable that writer Kemp Powers has managed to craft such an absorbing 90-minutes of theatre.

Robert Jones’ set design incorporates touches of Art Deco to establish the location of the hotel room in which the meeting takes place. The time is February 1964, just after Cassius Clay has beaten Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Clay, played by Sope Dirusu with little of the swagger associated with the public persona, is seen as naive and impressionable, under the influence of Malcolm X, as he prepares to announce the following day that he is converting to Islam and changing his name to Mohammed Ali. Fellow sportsman, American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) finds it easy to resist pressure to make a similar conversion on the grounds that it would mean foregoing the pleasures of his grandma’s pork chops.

The core of the play is the clash of ideals between Malcolm X (Francois Battiste) and singer/songwriter Sam Cooke (Arinzé Kene), the former pushing for militant action to advance American civil rights, the latter preferring slow change to a system that is seeing him coming out on top by making records that reach white audiences and selling songs to the likes of the Rolling Stones. The argument is revolution versus evolution. Cooke entertains the group with a performance of the innocuous You Send Me, but faces taunts that it has taken a white man (Bob Dylan) to write the first great song for Black Americans, Blowing in the Wind (repeated tributes to Dylan in the play feel particularly apt in the week when he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). Cooke’s hurt is visible in Kene’s expression and his retaliation, a preview performance, sung a cappella, of A Change is Gonna Come is stunning; this should have ended the play with an exclamation mark and it is rather a pity that it continues for a few more minutes to reach anticlimax.

Neither Malcolm X nor Cooke was destined to survive another full year after this meeting, the suggestion being made that Malcolm X was more a prisoner of the Nation of Islam movement than a free revolutionary leader and that his life was under threat long before his assassination. Kene stands out among four superb performances in Kwame Kwel-Armah.s solid production. The play leaves open the question of which of the two approaches to change history has proven to be right. Notwithstanding the presence of a black President in the White House, sickening news and statistics still coming out of American cities indicate that, sadly, the answer could be neither.

Performance date: 14 October 2016

A Man of Good Hope**** (Young Vic)

Posted: October 14, 2016 in Theatre

a-man-of-good-hopeThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

When politicians and the media talk about migration, it is usually in terms of numbers, but this new work by South Africa’s Isango Ensemble reminds us that those numbers are made up of individuals. It tells the story of one boy/man’s 20-year odyssey across a troubled terrain in search of a better tomorrow.

In 1991, at the age of eight, Asad Abdullah, from a proud Somali family, looks on as his mother is shot dead. The orphan’s journey begins, traversing post-colonial Africa, a continent crippled by conflicts of all kinds, eventually meeting Jonny Steinberg in Cape Town in 2011. The show is adapted from Steinberg’s book of Asad’s true story,

When Mandisi Dyantyis opens the show dancing centre stage while conducting musicians placed either side of him, we are given clear notice that orthodoxy will play little part in what follows. The music he conducts is a thrilling fusion of styles, traditional African sounds, rhythms and melodies blending with European opera. Perhaps it should not work, but it does and the only complaint about the music is that there is not enough of it. Exciting movement and choral singing provide an exhilarating spectacle that cannot be matched by rather static spoken scenes.

The precocious boy Asad (played at this performance by Phielo Makitle) grows into a resourceful youth (Zoleka Mpotsha), a budding entrepreneur (Luvo Tamba) and, finally, the embittered man (Ayanda Tikolo), looking older than his 28 years, who meets Steinberg. White hats pass between the four actors like batons. Asad’s journey takes him through Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The doors of admission to America are slammed in his face cruelly and he sees South Africa as the new land of opportunity. He grapples with languages, finds a wife (Busisiwe Ngejane), fathers a child and survives on the strength of his ingenuity.

Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the thrust stage is frequently awash with colour and shaking with vibrant energy, but the show does not quite overcome a problem common to most “road” stories in that it is episodic. New characters emerge regularly, only to disappear before we have got to know them, leaving Asad as the one character to be fleshed out fully. The creators’ political agenda is in plain view; they describe a South Africa in which the promises of Nelson Mandela have all been broken by his successors, where lawlessness and corruption are rife and where different forms of racism have survived the demise of Apartheid.

The journey ends with Asad disillusioned and ready to abandon Africa, making the show’s title seem entirely ironic. Yet, conversely, the originality and vitality that run through its veins are uplifting enough to leave a feeling that hope for the future may not be so badly misplaced.

Performance date: 13 October 2016

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