Archive for August, 2021

Cinderella (Gillian Lynne Theatre)

Posted: August 26, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Composer: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Book: Emerald Fennell

Lyrics: David Zippel

Director: Laurence Connor


Once upon a time Andrew Lloyd Webber would conjure up hit musicals from Argentine politics, feline poems and steam engines. Now, following in the footsteps of Rossini, Massenet, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and many others on stage and screen, he offers his take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella. It would seem that the composer’s days of thinking outside the box may be over.

Happily, the basic story has seemingly infinite scope for variations and the key to making any new version interesting lies with the twists in the tale. The news that this show’s book is the work of Emerald Fennell,  recent Oscar winner for the screenplay of Promising Young Woman, is a more than promising start. If Stephen Sondheim’sInto the Woods could opt for a not so charming Prince, then why not have a “bad” Cinders at the heart of Fennell’s version? It is a twist that pays dividends over and over, as the delightful Carrie Hope Fletcher puts a mischievous twinkle into the title character’s eyes and a spring into her naughty step.

The twists don’t stop with a bad heroine. Shockingly, Prince Charming is dead before the show starts and then…well no more spoilers. The setting is Belleville, somewhere in the region of France, at some time around the 18th Century. A prank by Cinderella has led to the town losing its appeal and its cash, so the Queen decrees that the only way to revive fortunes will be a royal wedding. The new heir is the wimpish Prince Sebastian, who also happens to be the only friend in the world of the put-upon, bedraggled serving girl Cinderella, and he must find a suitable bride at a hastily organised ball.

Clear messages about anti-bullying, body image and female empowerment are planted throughout the show without ever weighing things down. Fennell’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics merge together seamlessly, setting a tone that is irreverent and spiky but still unapologetically romantic. Fresh, modern and preserving the full flavour of the traditional fairy tale, this is a show with appeal for all age groups.

As Sebastian, relative newcomer Ivano Turco is outstanding, nailing the glorious showstopper Only You, Lonely You in the first act and disco dancing like John Travolta in the second. Rebecca Trehearn, looking like Marie Antoinette, plays the Queen as a tart made good. Both she and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s uncaring stepmother borrow from pantomime with their over-the-top villainesses and their duet, I Know You, is an absolute hoot. Gloria Onitiri also contributes a wicked cameo as the Godmother, in modern terms a sort of make-over consultant for Cinders.

Directing a company of over 30,  Laurence Connor stages the show in slick and spectacular style. The whole of the stalls revolves for the ball, repeating a trick seen in this same theatre for the original production of Cats. Gabriella Tylesova’s period costumes and fast changing sets are breathtaking and JoAnn M Hunter’s exuberant choreography brings in exciting modern touches.

Plaudits go to all involved, but it is Lloyd Webber’s name that goes above the title and this emphatic return to form must be seen as a personal triumph for him. Blending the expected ravishing melodies with reminders of his rock ’n’ roll roots, this is perhaps the composer’s most varied and fully-rounded score since Phantom. The show may not live happily ever after, but it should stick around for a year or two at very least.

Performance date: 25 August 2021

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writer: Rita Kalnejais

Director: Chirolles Khalil


Two young people hide in a loft while an authoritarian regime controls the streets outside and a war rages all around. Rita Kalnejais’ play, first performed in 2017, is set in 1944, during the final days of the German occupation of France, but Kabul in 2021 keeps springing to mind. Contrasting the intimacy of human relationships with the epic nature of world history, the writer makes it clear that the title which she has given to the play is rich with irony.

Elodie is a French teenager, prone to bouts of epilepsy, but romantic and optimistic. She lives in Chartres, south-west of Paris, and while swimming at a lake, she meets Otto, a German soldier of similar age. He boasts of having been part of a firing squad and shapes his actions in accordance with “what Mister Hitler would do”. His beautiful future involves the formation of a pure Aryan race and he believes that his departure to take part in the inevitable conquest of England is imminent. He is unaware that the Normandy landings have already taken place.

Freddie Wise’s Otto is a naive, sensitive youth, contradicting the horrific catalogue of beliefs and deeds recounted in the play. We are always asked to pity Otto more than despise him and, seen here, the character demonstrates the ease with which ordinary people can be indoctrinated with evil. Elodie, played with wide-eyed innocence by Katie Eldred, is excited at setting off on a new adventure and she loves Otto, blind to what he tells her about himself. Taunting each other and having pillow fights, we see a couple of children on the cusp of sexual awakening and on the threshold of encountering the harsh realities of life.

Kalnejais’ 70-minute one-act play is a coming of age tale with many bitter twists. Some of the writing is too heavily laden with obvious symbolism, but there is an overriding sense of the powerlessness of individuals to live their private lives closeted from cataclysmic events unfolding in the wider world. Director Chirolles Khalil’s production is at its best in quiet scenes of tenderness between the teens, faring less well when moments of high drama are over emphasised.

Performed with great confidence throughout by Eldred and Wise, This Beautiful Future reminds us that the grand sweep of history hides many small, human stories and that the future rarely includes learning lessons from the past.

Performance date: 20 August 2021

Constellations (Vaudeville Theatre)

Posted: August 13, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Nick Payne

Director: Michael Longhurst


Hot on the heels of the announcement that an all-male couple will be competing on Strictly Comes Dancing, comes an all-male pairing in Nick Payne’s stellar romance Constellations. It’s 2021, so, hopefully, the reaction to both items of news will be “so what?”, leaving us to get on with enjoying the performances and seeing what the judges make of them.

Michael Longhurst, now Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, directed the world premiere production of Payne’s play at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012, later transferring it to the West End and Broadway. The play, a two-hander, is being revived by Longhurst in four versions, of which this is one, with diverse pairs of actors taking on the roles, pointing to the universality of the writer’s themes.

Beekeeper Rodney and quantum cosmologist Manuel (Marianne in other versions) meet at a barbecue, then at a ballroom dancing class, forming an on/off relationship. This means both on and off, because Payne deploys the trick of repeating short scenes over and over to produce different resolutions, thereby answering the “what if?” question. This stuttering progression plays out something like Love Story meets Groundhog Day, supporting Manuel’s theory that everything in the cosmos has pre-determined and varying outcomes. Happily, the scientific gobbledygook is short and sweet, as the writer is  concerned with speaking to the heart more than to the brain

Omari Douglas, fresh from success in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, plays Manuel as a vulnerable drama queen and Payne’s sharp, stinging dialogue suits his style perfectly. Russell Tovey’s “boring” Roland is the ideal foil for him and the actors’ timing of the quick fire comedy exchanges is impeccable. When the play is funny, this pair makes it very funny and, when it stops being funny, there appears a tender emotional bond  which is truly touching.

Running for barely 70 minutes, the play, already a modern classic, does not outstay its welcome. Longhurst’s production looks much the same as it did in 2012, with Tom Scutt’s set, consisting of a multitude of helium-filled balloons, illuminated by Lee Curran’s warm and glowing lighting design. Although the triumph of this version has more to do with chemistry than cosmology, Douglas and Tovey team up so naturally that it could have been written in the stars.

Performance date: 12 August 2019

Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Tom Wells

Director: Tessa Walker


For anyone who has not yet booked their 2021 staycation, it could be useful to note that Kilnsea is a small town on the East Yorkshire coast, near Hull. It is the home town of writer Tom Wells and the setting for his new play Big Big Sky which paints a picture of it as a place of tranquility, in harmony with the natural world. Even rare birds think it worthwhile to stop by here twice a year as they migrate north or south.

The 90-minute one-act play is the antithesis of an action thriller. It is almost entirely character-driven and it contradicts its title by being about small small things. This is exemplified in director Tessa Walker’s carefully detailed production by characters fussily repositioning furniture and moving signage on and off set, over and over again. Little things mean a lot in Kilnsea, small cogs make the bigger wheels turn.

The action (or perhaps inaction) unfolds in a seaside café, represented by designer Bob Bailey’s beautifully observed pale blue set. It is run by Angie and the much younger Lauren, whose dad, Dennis hangs around at the end of each day in the hope of picking up free meals from leftovers. It is end of season and the café will soon close for Winter, maybe never to reopen in the face of competition from a new development in the town centre.

The arrival of Ed, a geeky ornithologist and conservationist from the Black Country, shakes things up a little. He settles in to enjoy vegan brownies with mint tea, takes a job as “Tern Warden” and quickly forms a romantic relationship with Lauren. All four characters are grieving: Dennis for his wife, Lauren and Ed for their mothers and Angie for a lost child. Continuity of life in all its forms is a strong theme running through Wells’ writing.

The play’s men are clumsy, tactless beasts and its women pull the strings that make things work. Sam Newton grasps at every opportunity to exploit the comic potential of Ed’s nervous awkwardness, while Matt Sutton gives Dennis the air of a lost soul, always striving to do well, but invariably putting his foot in it. In contrast, Jennifer Daley’s Angie is a rock, overcoming personal loss to spread warmth to others, and Jessica Jolleys’ vibrant and youthfully optimistic Lauren is a pillar of common sense.

Lovingly written and performed, Wells’ heartwarming play brings an oasis of calm to the bustle of North London. It reminds us that simple things matter most, where there is loss there is renewal and where there is life there is hope.

Performance date: 5 September 2021

Swimming (White Bear Theatre)

Posted: August 5, 2021 in Theatre

Writer: Alex Bower

Director: Kayla Feldman


Alex Bower’s one-act play Swimming made its first appearance at the White Bear Theatre in 2019 and now, after our enforced break, the producers have judged that it’s safe for us to go back in the water, socially distanced of course.

Dan (George Jones) is in a seemingly stable relationship with Marianne (Rose Dickson), but his eye is caught by Sam (Dominic Rawson), a student and amateur swimming instructor, while he is lounging at the local lido. Soon, the boys are practicing their strokes together, both in the pool and in the privacy of Sam’s flat, and Dan abruptly dumps Marianne over the telephone. Meanwhile, Dan’s best mate Ant (Andy Sellers), a bed maker who would like to lie in one of them with Marianne, reminds Dan of the joys of laddish sexist banter and stag nights in Ibiza.

Director Kayla Feldman’s in-the-round production, performed on a bare stage, wavers between light comedy and anguished drama. In summary, Dan wants Sam (or maybe Marianne or maybe both), Sam just wants to know, Marianne wants to heal her wounded pride and Ant wants Dan back in the hetero fold but out of the way so that he can move in on Marianne. The characters congregate to discuss Dan’s bisexuality coyly, attempting to sort out the mess that it has made of their tranquil, ordinary lives.

In looking at things from four different perspectives Bowers seems to be taking on too much to cram into a mere 70 minutes, leading to all the characters feeling underwritten. A quartet of capable young actors struggles to flesh them out and to make the chemistry between them believable. This is a particular problem in the case of Dan, the central figure. He is unable to open out to others, or probably to himself and the writer can find no way to reveal his inner emotions to the audience. As a result, we neither understand him nor empathise with him.

Swimming skims over the surface of a large pool of complex human problems without diving down to find their heart. The play is amiable enough, but it never really moves far from the shallow end.

Performance date: 4 August 2021

John & Jen (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: August 3, 2021 in Theatre

Writers: Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald

Director: Guy Retallack


Broadway writer composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa has for long been undervalues in this, his country of birth. Recent UK productions of Big Fish and The Addams Family have gone some way towards rectifying this, but here we have an opportunity to appraise his first show from 1993, written in collaboration with Tom Greenwald. This updated version is receiving its world premiere and has fresh orchestrations by Lippa and Jason Robert Brown.

The revised version spans a period of around 35 years, from the mid-1980s to the present day. It begins with seven-year-old Jen picking up her new-born baby brother John, promising to care for and protect him throughout his life. Together, they embark on a journey from childhood playfulness and teenage rebellion through to the harsh realities of responsible adulthood. The show is a two-hander, a chamber musical, performed here with a four-piece band under the direction of Chris Ma.

Designer Natalie Johnson sets the show in a shed (or perhaps an attic) filled with boxes of toys and other children’s paraphernalia. The siblings belong to an all-American family, perhaps typical in our perceptions, but the writers make clear that there are cracks in this idyllic structure. Lurking in the background is a controlling, violent father, despised by Jen, but eventually worshiped and treated as a role model by John. The father’s presence never comes to the fore, but is suggested subtly as, for example, when Santa Claus fails to leave presents on Christmas Eve.

Director Guy Retallack’s production blends frivolous humour with powerful emotional clout. However strong the material, an intimate show like this can only succeed if the performances are good and here they are superb.  Rachel Tucker, recently triumphant in the West End production of Come from Away, takes Jen’s girlish playfulness, teenage angst and doting motherhood all comfortably in her stride and belts out the show’s finale in a style that almost literally brings the small house down. Lewis Cornay, youthful in appearance, but always playing John as still younger, commands the stage with impressive authority.

The story is about love and loss, standing still and moving forwards, holding on and letting go. In examining American family life, the show touches on themes that Lippa was to return to in Big Fish, but the story is also told against the backdrop of turbulent history, incorporating political debates in song between the hawkish John and pacifist Jen. 

Almost sung through, the show includes several songs of stand alone quality, all done full justice by Tucker and Cornay. However, the factor that ultimately makes John & Jen so special is the skill with which it tells a multi-layered human story in musical form. In so doing, it frequently brings tears to the eyes.  

Performance date: 2 August 2021