Archive for January, 2017

Dirty Great Love Story Production Photos Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Dirty Great Love Story Production Photos
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

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“All love stories are good, but the great ones are dirty” we are told as this bubbly 90-minute comedy nears its conclusion. “Dirty” means “messy” (or sometimes not), as we hear a tale of awkward coupling in the age of over-active smart phones and gentrified cities. The characters involved are called Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna, which just happens to be the names of the play’s writers.

The couple enters as if about to perform a comedy double act and, on a white rectangular platform with just two moveable chairs, Richard (Felix Scott) and Katie (Ayesha Antoine) tell us how they met when a stag party and a hen party collided. He is one of the lads, describing himself as “not good-looking in the classical sense”. She is flirtatious, eats gluten-free croissants and is prone to drinking too much. She has been dumped by her boyfriends, he is unlikely to have been in a relationship that reached such a stage. Each regards the other as “not my type” and a night together in a convenient Travel Lodge does little to change that. To anyone who has ever seen a romantic comedy, nothing that follows is even slightly unpredictable as they meet again at a mutual friend’s wedding (not four of them this time) and a christening, but the play’s strength grows out of it’s simplicity and Pia Furtado’s lively. no frills production is content to cash in on the story’s familiarity.

The writing is full of sharp observational comedy, with the added twist that it is in rhyming verse. The laughs are loudest when the rhymes are at their most forced,  Scott and Antoine showing the comic timing to milk them all. They make an endearing pair, self-effacing and innocent as they fumble their ways through the rough and tumble of modern romance. Yes, every situation described in the play is as old as Adam and Eve, but there is a charming freshness running through the writing and the performances that makes it all feel brand new.

Performance date: 25 January 2017

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Maury Yeston’s musical Phantom of the Opera may have been eclipsed by another version, but it seems that a fondness for romantic melodramas remained in his system, re-emerging with this show which first appeared off-Broadway in 2011. Based upon La Morte in Vacanza, (a play by Alberto Camellia, filmed most recently as Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt), it tells how Death, perhaps in need of a rest after the Great War, takes a weekend off to experience being human. The metaphysical takes on physical form and becomes very physical with the lovely Grazia, knowing that her life will have to end if she is to stay with him after the end of his holiday. Preposterous plots are a staple of all forms of musical theatre, but, even when disbelief is completely suspended, strands of logic to cling onto are helpful and, here, there are few. The notion that Grazia will escape with her handsome “prince” to die happily ever after is slightly troubling.

The book, by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone, has few spoken sections, leaving Yeston’s music and lyrics to tell most of the story and opening again the question of where dividing lines are drawn between operas, operettas and musicals. Yeston’s pedigree (Grand HotelTitanicNine) could lead to expectations of a score influenced primarily by Broadway, but, in fact, there is much more of Puccini and Lehár than of, say, Gershwin or Sondheim. The composer is in London for this opening and the thought could have occurred to him that he will never hear his lush and melodic music sung better than it is here by a company that would not be out of place half a mile away on the stage at Covent Garden. Indeed, if they would fit in there, then why not the “musical” itself?

If  any director is going to give a helping hand to a show that could struggle to find an audience, it is Thom Southerland and he delivers a production that looks as ravishing as it sounds. Morgan Large’s set design of a classical villa beside a Northern Italian lake dominates throughout, perfectly lit in blue/grey (lighting designer Matt Daw) with mists arising from the water and Jonathan Lipman’s period (!922) costume designs are stunning. For the ears, Dean Austin’s 12-piece band does full justice to the music. It all looks and sounds absolutely beautiful, but the same can also be said of a perfume commercial and the key test is how the show connects emotionally with the audience.

Unlike much if his previous work in musical theatre, Southerland’s concept here could be described as grand opera on a reduced scale. Drama is often heightened to melodrama, particularly in the lead performances of Chris Peluso (Death) and Zoë Doano (Grazia), both of whom sing wonderfully. It is a big ask for them to keep the distance that the story necessitates while, at the same time, building a tempestuous relationship and, somehow, the romantic chemistry does not completely gel. The result of this, combined with a plot that never feels quite right, is a show that is not as moving as it sets out to be. That said, this is an admirable production and it brings to an end a three-show season of musicals at the Charing Cross Theatre that has been nothing short of a triumph. Fingers crossed that the team of producer Danielle Tarrento and Southerland will be back here soon.

Performance date: 24 January 2017

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They say that humour often does not travel well, but perhaps it time travels even worse. Who, in 2017,  finds Charlie Chaplin funny? Or the Marx Brothers? Well the latter would get a big hands up from the creators of this production, but they are taking a risk when assuming that they will find audiences who will share their enthusiasm for the American comedy trio who had their heyday in the 1930s and 40s.

Dominic Hedges centres his play around a fading variety theatre in wartime London where Lombard (Jake Urry), the impresario, is struggling to pay the bills and his performers, Tommy (Peter Stone), Rachel (Rachel Hartley) and Cyril (Jordan Moore) are threatening a walk-out. During a bombing raid, they rummage through boxes in an air-raid shelter, come across some unperformed Marx Brothers scripts and look for salvation by forming a sort of tribute group..

Hedges’ core idea is a good one and it would have been better had he been able to bring together the two strands of the play – the wartime drama and the performance of the Marx Brothers sketches – more successfully. If he could have found a way to insert the sketches at intervals throughout the play, it could have felt more fully rounded, but, as it is, he delivers an unbalanced piece in which long spells of backstage bickering become tedious and repetitive, leaving all the juicy comedy to near the end. Director Terrence Mann’s production is slow to gain momentum and some cutting to the first half could make things move more briskly. Also, it has to be asked whether the flow needed to be interrupted by an interval. 20 minutes spent at the bar included in a production that runs for only 95 minutes is ridiculous. Changing sets is an implausible excuse when one of the production’s most notable successes is rapid changes of the moveable scenery.

Happily, when Tommy becomes Harpo, Cyril Groucho, Lombard Chico and Rachel their stooge, everything changes. Doppelgängers for the brothers the three guys are not, but it matters little that their impersonations are inexact when they capture the flavour of the humour so well and execute the quick-fire gags with precision timing.  This is great nostalgic fun, demonstrating that what the production has most in its favour is a talented young company able to give it that “let’s put on a show” feel.  This show takes its time to get going, but when it eventually hits the right Marx, the wait is worthwhile.

Performance date: 19 January 2017

Photo: Mitchell Reeve

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As the World continues to puzzle over what sort of people could possibly have voted for Donald Trump, American writer Keith Stevenson’s one-act play suggests five possible answers.

In the heart of West Virginia, rooms at the Mohican Arms motel are rented out long term to folk who might otherwise be associated with living in trailers. One such resident is JD (played by the writer), son of an Italian prostitute and a well-connected father; kind-hearted to a fault and a speaker of Latin, he is looking for a roommate. Mitch (Robert Moloney) arrives to fill the vacancy; he is homeless. having been kicked out by his girlfriend, and jobless, after being fired from his position at a company making plastic forks for Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, because he suffers from hyperhidrosis (sweaty hands). Quirky back stories play a big part and typify the strain of humour that runs through this comedy.

Simon Scullion’s set is a perfect realisation of a room, complete with untidy twin beds and a mini-bar, at the type of motel that most of us holidaying in the States would give one glance towards and drive by quickly. The potential roommates are intruded upon by cantankerous landlord Flip (Michael Wade), distraught, meth-smoking Marlene (Melanie Gray) and her drunken, unfaithful boyfriend Tommy (Dan Hildebrand). Naturally, Marlene is an artist and Tommy’s sideline is writing poetry. Anarchy ensues, eventually bringing gun-firing cops to the scene. There is a slight sense of sneering at an uncultured underclass, but well-judged performances make the characters seem real, however outrageous their antics become.

Director Harry Burton’s production has a boisterous energy that feeds off the characters’ unpredictability. If there is any serious point underlying the mayhem, it never becomes clear, but the play squeezes enough decent laughs into its 70 minutes to quell complaints about that.

Performance date: 18 January 2017

Photo: Gavin Watson

Abigail (The Bunker)

Posted: January 18, 2017 in Theatre

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Having seen more than a little theatre, a rule emerges that any play for which the programme lists the characters as “woman” and “man” is to be approached with suspicion, perhaps even more so when the play’s title is the name of a woman. To be fair, a barely audible murmur in Fiona Doyle’s one-hour play indicates that “woman” could be “Abby”, but this information counters what seems to be the writer’s mission to separate drama and context. In principle, there is nothing wrong with a play being enigmatic, but the chief problem with this one is that it tries much too hard to be such and for no clear purpose.

In chronological order, two people meet in Berlin airport. have a quick fling in a hotel, travel together and form a relationship that proves to be mutually destructive. However, Doyle tells the story in non-linear form, asking the audience to care when the foundations of the relationship are crumbling, before explaining what those foundations are. The device of juggling with time or even reversing it has worked brilliantly before when used by, for example, Harold Pinter, giving the audience a different and revelatory perspective on events. Unfortunately, it this case, it seems to achieve very little at all.

Playing around with chronology, making the characters anonymous and (apart from the mention of Berlin) avoiding any sense of place, Doyle perplexes us, but, by removing context, she makes it impossible for us to care. All that is left is an hour in which two people talk a lot about nothing of any great significance on a set made up of white and brown boxes. Only engaging performances by Tia Bannon and Mark Rose save director Joshua Mactaggart’s production from complete disaster.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

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Before starting to review Promises Promises, I have to state a personal interest. The show is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1960 Oscar winning film The Apartment and, although I do not claim it to be the greatest film of all time, it is my own favourite. It gave birth to lifelong loves of cinema and the city of New York which remain undiminished. It is the perfect New Year’s Eve movie and, seeing it again now, the striking thing is that so little has changed in more than half a century. Yes some specific details of office life are different, but the film’s caustic account of it remains as relevant as back in the 60s and, of course, human nature, the dark and romantic sides of it, is as it ever was.

In this musical version, the time is 1962 and Fran Kubilik. an elevator operator in the film, has become a waitress, but Neil Simon’s book is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay by Wilder and IAL Diamond. He adds plenty of his own brand of New York humour while retaining the essential bitter-sweet tone of the source material and there are times when this production is very, very funny, aided by delicious cameos from John Guerraso and Alex Young. In fact it would be fair to say that this is a musical comedy in which the comedy comes out on top.

The songs are provided by composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, the team responsible for countless classics of the 60s era, but there is a feeling that they knew the way to San Jose better than the way to Broadway. The show includes one of their greatest, A House is Not a Home, Daisy Maywood’s tearful rendition breaking hearts, and also one of their best known, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, touchingly duetted by Maywood and Gabriel Vick to the simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Otherwise, the songs are disappointingly ordinary, but, more crucially, they often feel like intrusions, hindering the show’s progress when they need to be propelling it.

Bronagh Lagan’s no-frills production suits the thrust stage and Cressida Carré’s choreography is fun, particularly when four overweight, lusty executives form an unlikely chorus line. Paul Robinson is strikingly sleazy as the boss Sheldrake, but it is the two lead performances that elevate this production and make it memorable. Vick takes on the role created by Jack Lemon, CC Baxter the ambitious, put-upon office junior who climbs the career ladder by lending out the key to his apartment to his seniors and their mistresses. He catches the essence of Lemon’s performance but also brings his own distinctive touches. As Fran, the object of both Sheldrake and Baxter’s affections, Maywood bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Shirley MacLaine – the tomboy hairstyle, the cheeky grin, the voice – and, at times it feels as if the only difference is that we never see her in black and white. Together, the pair generate a wonderful comic chemistry and, once they begin to cast their spell, reservations about the show itself quickly melt away.

Performance date: 17 January 2017

Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

Posted: January 17, 2017 in Theatre

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Cor Blimey, it’s the time of year when the West End is awash with cheap tickets. What else would bring me to a show that I’ve avoided for 50 years on stage and screen and one that (along with Southern Trains) led me to miss the annual trip to Chichester in 2016? Back in the days when Tommy Steele was strutting his stuff in the lead role, I always found it hard to shake off the prejudices that only the Americans can create great musicals and that British attempts to emulate them are a bit of an embarrassment. Although there have been obvious exceptions, this is not a show that I expected to change that ridiculous notion.

Julian Fellowes’ new book is adapted from Kipps, HG Wells’ account of class divisions in Edwardian Eastbourne. The story has a Shavian flavour, but, when a musical’s best-known song is Flash, Bang, Wallop, it is never likely to match up to My Fair Lady. And so it proves, but Rachel Kavanaugh’s sparkling revival offers many compensations. Andrew Wright’s choreography is faultless, Paul Brown’s sets and costumes dazzle and, above everything else, Charlies Stemp’s performance as “Arfur” Kipps is sensational. A cross between Steele and Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer, he occasionally resembles a stick of striped seaside rock, but he sings and dances into the spotlight as if to the manner born and the West End has an instant new star.

The first of two big production numbers in the second half is Pick Out a Simple Tune and for the most part, composer David Heneker seems to have taken this advise from his lyricists George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (who also add new music). Moderate songs, predictable and clunking plot, so reservations remain, but the euphoria generated in this production, particularly the vibrant second half is still hard to resist.

Performance date: 16 January 2017