Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Writer: Carl Grose      Music: Charles Hazlewood.     Director: Mike Shepherd


John Gay’s 1728 musical immorality tale, The Beggar’s Opera has proved to be a durable piece. Not only is it revived regularly, but it has also inspired variations, the most notable of which is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. Now Kneehigh has given it a 21st Century twist, perhaps aiming to teach an old dog new tricks.

The show’s sleazy urban underworld setting is a place so devoid of heroes that we are left rooting for a thief, murderer and bigamist, but Dominic Marsh’s Macheath has enough cheeky Jack-the-Lad charm to win us over. Macheath is contracted to kill the city’s mayor, which he does efficiently, despatching his victim’s dog too, thereby preventing him from being called as a witness. The contract had been issued by the villainous Peachums, played by Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania with more than a hint of mid-year pantomime.

In steps corrupt police officer Lockit (Giles King) on a mission to catch Macheath, encouraged by the duplicity of the Peachums. With bribe money being placed in a suitcase and the canine corpse in another identical one, a mix-up is inevitable. To add further confusion, Macheath has just married the Peachums’ daughter, Polly (Angela Hardie), having already impregnated Lockit’s daughter, Lucy (Beverly Rudd). 

Writer Carl Grose keeps the flavour of Gay and works from the same narrative, but the sense of time is vague (only references to ‘phone use suggest that it is much later than 1728.). Charles Hazlewood’s catchy pop/rock songs, many of them sounding as if they would not have been out of place on a Madness album, give the show much of its energy. This is an ensemble production, with the best songs shared around, and there are stand-out performances from Patrycja Kujawska as the mayor’s vengeful widow and Georgia Frost as the Peachums’ lackey, Filch.

Director Mike Shepherd’s production has exuberance and invention, although the second half is decidedly slicker than the first. The musicians are integrated into the action and puppets (including a High Court Judge with a voice like Margaret Thatcher) swell the numbers on stage still further. In one particularly amusing scene, a creche full of puppet babies gang up to terrify their presumed father, Macheath. There is a sense of constant bustle around Michael Vale’s split-level set, seen through Malcom Rippeth’s atmospheric lighting, and the show builds up to a finale of spectacular destruction, in which all the characters get pretty much what they deserve.

Modern day references are disappointingly rare in this update, the show’s kick coming from timeless, rather than contemporary relevance. And so Gay’s classic comes back to entertain new audiences, proving that there is still life in the old dog, in spite of what the show’s title suggests.

Performance date: 23 May 2019

Photo: Steve Tanner

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Jonathan Maitland      Director: Lotte Wakeham


Popping into a nearby bookmaker’s shop on the way to the opening night of Jonathan Maitland’s new play, a quick check of the odds reveals that Boris Johnson is the current favourite to fill the impending vacancy for the job of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister. This news adds urgency to the play’s key question: is its central character a political leader who presents himself as a clown or a clown who presents himself as a political leader?

The play is a soft-centred satire that has plentiful humour but little real bite. Maitland’s style is to find a good joke, sometimes a very good one, and then take it too far. In consequence a repeated pattern emerges of belly laughs followed by yawns. To his credit, the writer neither demeans Johnson nor questions his intelligence and there are even suggestions of affection for him, brought out by Will Barton playing him as a little boy lost who deliberately dishevels his hair before appearing on television.

As an impressionist, Barton does a pretty good job and gets the audience chuckling before words are spoken. The opening scene is set in early 2016 in the Johnson kitchen/diner, Boris and his then wife, human rights lawyer Marina Wheeler (Davina Moon), having set a table for six guests – the unswervingly prevaricating Michael Gove (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), his wife (Arabella Weir), the unswervingly name dropping owner of the Evening Standard, Evgeny Lebedev (Tim Wallers) and his plus one, Liz Hurley, who sends her apologies.

Johnson, in his final months as Mayor of London, is undecided about which side to back in the upcoming EU Referendum. He looks for inspiration not only from his dinner guests, but from imaginary incarnations of previous Prime Ministers – Winston Churchill (Weir), Margaret Thatcher and, surprisingly, Tony Blair (Wallers). Steve Nallon was the voice of Thatcher’s puppet on Spitting Image and it is a delight to see him reprising the role on stage, resplendent in a bright blue outfit.

The second act jumps forward to 31 March 2029, the tenth anniversary of the United Kingdom not leaving the European Union. Johnson, still an MP, is about to reverse the Trump career trajectory by taking over from Lord Sugar as the boss on The Apprentice, but he is nervous that he will be incapable of firing anyone. Brexit did eventually happen, the country has survived a disastrous Corbyn-Sinn Fein coalition Government, Dominic Raab is installed in Downing Street, Chelsea Clinton occupies the White House, Michael Gove has joined the clergy and, least likely of all, England had won the 2022 World Cup.

Will our hero at last get the call, in Churchillian fashion, to save the nation in its new darkest hour? If so, he will have to contain his “inner Bill Clinton” and champion, you guessed it, the United Kingdom’s re-entry into the European Union.

Director Lotte Wakeham’s production is sharply acted, blending caricature and real life deftly. The writer’s cynical, but probably correct, assertion is that, driven by lust for power, politics of pragmatism will always defeat politics of conviction. We await the next instalment in the Johnson saga. The play is scheduled to run until 8 June, but a month is a long time in politics and it would come as no surprise if Maitland is called in for re-writes even before that date arrives.

Performance date: 13 May 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Dale Wasserman      Music: Mitch Leigh      Lyrics: Joe Darion      Director: Lonny Price


The lines that distinguish grand opera from musical theatre can often become blurred and the producing team of Michael Linnit and Michael Grade do little to make them clearer. Man of La Mancha, the fifth in what has become an annual series of collaborations with English National Opera, is a 1965 Tony Award winning Broadway musical with a touch of Bizet, staged in an opera house and headlined by an American comedy actor and an Australian-born soprano. The mix is nothing if not intriguing.

The show begins with 16th/17th Century writer Miguel de Cervantes being thrown into a dungeon, pending trial by the Spanish Inquisition. His fellow inmates, murderers, thieves, etc, decide to put the newcomer on trial themselves and, in his defence, Cervantes writes a play which is performed by himself and other prisoners. Cervantes becomes the gallant knight Don Quixote who, along with his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, rides off on a quest to fight injustice, tilt at windmills and chase impossible dreams.

This play within a play narrative structure is far more intricate than is typical for Broadway musicals and there are times when the intelligence of Dale Wasserman’s book and Joe Darion’s lyrics add further complexity when simplicity is needed, Composer Mitch Leigh has an ear for catchy melodies and his Spanish flavoured score offers a lot more than just one hit song.

There are few suggestions that this production is “semi-staged”. It is fully costumed and the orchestra is consigned to the pit, leaving the cavernous stage open. James Noone’s gloomy design has one spectacular feature – a wide metal staircase that descends from above to the dungeon whenever contact with the outside world is being made.

This musical is not sung through, long spoken scenes giving it a stop-start feel and, when the show stops, much gets lost in the vast auditorium. This type of large scale production, destined for a limited run, inevitably places constraints on a director. Largely, Lonny Price sticks to a conventional approach, leaving himself little scope for adding touches of comic invention which could have livened up duller patches.

As Cervantes/Quixote, Kelsey Grammar is valiant and ridiculous in exactly the right measures, but he is not known for being a great singer and, when he launches into the show’s iconic song, The Impossible Dream, a cloud of dread blankets the audience. However, he has previous experience in musicals and he attacks the song with gusto worthy of Quixote, never striving to reach the unreachable high notes, but relying instead on forceful delivery and magnetic stage presence to sell it.

Danielle de Niese is superbly tempestuous as Aldonza, the put upon and brutally abused peasant girl who Quixote envisions to be the gracious Lady Dulcinea, and, of course, she sings with glorious clarity. Peter Polycarpou is a sprightly Sancho Panza and a doleful Nichola Lyndhurst is the self-styled “governor” of the prisoners and an innkeeper. The entire company is made up of 30 actors, singers and dancers (choreographed by Rebecca Howell) and David White conducts a 30-piece orchestra, his new orchestrations giving prominence to the brass section.

Price’s production contains several memorable highlights, but, in all, it is hit and miss. Unseen in London for half a century, Man of La Mancha has assumed legendary status here, which, on this evidence, may not be entirely merited.

Performance date: 30 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Ben Alderton      Director: Roland Reynolds


If anyone seeks to prove that British politics are broken, surely there is enough evidence in the present day, without having to delve into history to find more. However, writer Ben Alderton seems to think otherwise with his new play, a crude and obvious satire that is four years past its sell-by date.

The play’s title is a quote from former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband and the words are repeated here by Ned Contraband (Ben Hood), fictional leader of the Red Party, to mask his perceived inadequacies. His opponent, Prime Minister and leader of the Blue Party is David Carter (Alderton himself), an arrogant toff. Carter treats his obsequious deputy, Nick Clog (James Bryant) in a  way that would draw outrage from the RSPCA, but quakes before his party’s election campaign manager, Glyniss, played by Annie Tyson in the manner of a dominatrix. Both party leaders are portrayed as imbeciles, Carter wants to be hip and Contraband needs a break from his hippy guru, Will (Michael Edwards). Alderton’s point is that, when the electorate has to choose between two idiots, its decision will rest solely on how they present themselves.

Director Roland Reynolds’ production has the feel of a student revue, packed with juvenile gags, most of which misfire. Alderton introduces two relatively serious characters as observers of and commentators on the mayhem. Patrick (Mikhail Sen) is a consultant brought in to advise the Blues on election strategy and thought a genius when he sparks the idea of harnessing the power of social media. Sharon Slaughter (Cassandra Hercules) is a relentlessly aggressive adviser to the Reds, convinced from the outset that Contraband is destined for failure.

With further names such as George Oblong, Nigel Garage and Jeremy *unt being bandied around, it seems reasonable to ask why Alderton thought it necessary to disguise the characters at all. On further reflection, he might have realised that a better way to dodge litigation could have been to make the facts underlying the satire more accurate. For example is it credible that the leader of the Lib/Dems would have participated in Tory party strategy meetings for the 2015 General Election? We have great traditions of caricaturing politicians, the art lying in accentuating and magnifying real traits and real events. Too much of what we see here is stale and, politically or in any other sense, simply incorrect.

With the real figures behind the key characters in this farce consigned long ago to either obscurity or Facebook, we ask what is the point of it and then Alderton gives us an answer. He jettisons the jokes and offers up a long scene that plays like a party political broadcast on behalf of the Momentum group. A white-bearded man named Corbz (Edward Halsted) appears in the guise of the Grim Reaper and the now disillusioned  Patrick launches into a diatribe against the toffs and the privileged who dominate politics. Give the young a chance, they agree, settling on “for the many and not the few” as their slogan. Bearing in mind that the Parliamentary constituency in which The Park Theatre is located is Islington North, could this be a case of preaching to the already converted?

Performance date: 26 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Louis de Bernières      Adaptor: Rona Munro      Director: Melly Still


Setting a fictional romance against the backdrop of real events in Greece during World War II, Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin became a worldwide hit. Many thought that the lavish 2001 film version suffered badly from miscasting, but, unencumbered by pressure to place star names in plum roles, Melly Still’s production of Rona Munro’s adaptation for the stage claims a head start over it.

The setting is the Greek island, Cephalonia – “the bridge between the mundane and the immortal”. Munro retains the flavour of de Bernières’ lyrical style and remains broadly faithful to his narrative, charting the perilous tracks of love and war. The play begins with the War seeming far away, but soon Greece is in conflict with Italy and then Germany, leading to an atrocity the memory of which may now have become overshadowed by larger ones.

The island is home to the widower, Dr Iannis (Joseph Long), a dispenser of medicine and wisdom, who lives with his beautiful young daughter, Pelagia, played with spirit and charm by Madison Clare. She flirts playfully with her betrothed, Mandras (Ashley Gayle), while he attempts to loosen the grip of his fiery mother, Drosoula (Eve Polycarpou) before leaving for war. The Italian conquerors arrive, led by their captain, Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni), a dreamily romantic musician who is a misfit in the army. Corelli, billeted at the Iannis house, begins to make music with his mandolin and affection between him and Pelagia blossoms, as sworn enemies become lovers.

It is a story that embraces familiar themes on the futility of war; “hope is a danger, love is treachery” we are told during the turbulence. Still’s direction is fittingly stirring and, only occasionally does she allow the epic to swamp the intimate, thereby obscuring key character details. However, the epic, staged with a company of 15 who play islanders (including animals) and soldiers, is quite something to behold. The casting is perfect, the performances are strong and small touches of humour stand out, such as the arrival of the Italian army, marching while singing Nessun Dorma like half a dozen Pavarottis.

Mayou Trikerioti’s stage design is dominated by a structure that looks at first like a giant rock, but projections and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting transform it to generate images of island paradise, battlefield Hell and natural disaster. Harry Blake’s original music, thrilling in the action sequences and soothing when the island is in relative peace, adds to the spectacle.

Bringing to the stage de Bernières’ curious epilogue seemed bound to be problematic and so it is, but, on the whole, this is powerful storytelling and Still’s production plays as sweetly as Corelli’s treasured instrument.

Performance date: 25 April 2019

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

On a side street in London’s West Hampstead, lies an anonymous building, its drab functionality belying its purpose, which is to create great art. The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates accepted an invitation to come here and visit the rehearsal rooms of English National Opera for a sneak preview of a major musical revival. A long walk down winding, narrow corridors takes some time, but, on arrival at the destination, the good news is that Frasier has NOT left the building.

Kelsey Grammar, best known for playing Frasier in the long-running American television sitcom of that name, is preparing to take the leading role in a long-awaited new production of the 1965 Tony Award winning Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, not seen in the West End since 1968. With music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion and a book by Dale Wasserman, the production is the fifth in a series of semi-staged musicals brought to the London Coliseum by producers Michael Linnit and Michael Grade in collaboration with ENO. Based on the experience of its four predecessors and on sketches of the set and costumes which were on view in the rehearsal room, the description of “semi—staged” could be misleading. Over 90% staged seems more likely.

The musical tells the story of 16th Century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, imprisoned by the Inquisition, and his alter ego Don Quixote in their quest for justice and freedom. Grammar, who has starred in musicals on Broadway and, very recently, in London (Big Fish at The Other Palace in 2017), will play Cervantes/Quixote. His co-star will be the celebrated Australian/American operatic soprano Danielle de Niese. British musical theatre veteran Peter Polycarpou will be Sancho Panza and Only Fools and Horses star Nicholas Lyndhurst will be a prisoner who becomes an innkeeper.

The rehearsal room, half the size of an aircraft hangar, with whitewashed brick walls and high ceiling, contrasts sharply with the grandeur that awaits at the Coliseum. The large company mills around until director Lonny Price calls order and Grammar emerges to perform the show’s opening song, accompanied only by a piano. When the show reaches the Coliseum, there will be a 30-piece orchestra. Polycarpou follows with I Really Like Him and then De Niese (in costume) with What Does He Want of Me?. Finally West End star Cassidy Janson, who will be standing in for De Niese’s at some performances, mounts the stage to lead the chorus for the show’s most famous song, The Impossible Dream.

Appetites truly whetted, we wait for the dream to become a reality in one of London’s most eagerly anticipated theatre events of 2019.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Pah-La (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: April 9, 2019 in Theatre

Writer: Abhishek Majumdar      Director: Debbie Hannan


It is not often that a drama set in Tibet arrives in Sloane Square, which makes Indian-based writer Abhishek Majumdar’s new play an intriguing rarity. The Tibetan conflict, where Buddhist followers of the exiled Dalai Lama continue to oppose repressive Chinese rule, forms the backdrop to a play that begins in the style of a stirring action adventure, but tails off to become a muddled morality tale.

In a remote Buddhist monastery, novice nun Deshar is a rebel, at odds with both elderly monk Rinpoche (Kwong Loke) and her father Tsering (Richard Rees). Millicent Wong makes Deshar a spirited, strong willed heroine, even if the character’s motivation comes across as vague, and her chief adversary, Chinese Commander Deng is, as played by Daniel York Loh, a forceful, if stereotypical, villain. Deng’s mission is to re-educate Tibetans to accept Chinese ways and, effectively obliterate their own culture and traditions.

Performed on a traverse stage, the first half of director Debbie Hannan’s production taps into the mystery of the Orient. Strong lighting effects (designed by Jessica Hung Han Yun) throbbing music (composed by Tom Gibbons) and choreographed movement (directed by  Quang Kien Van) mark all of the many scene changes and inject excitement into the drama. The climax is a spectacular effect which must have given headaches to Health and Safety officers, but which certainly heats up the action.

Pyrotechnics are followed by a second act that is disappointingly flat and strains credibility to its limits. The action now switches to Lhasa, where Deng is faced with quelling unrest that springs from Deshar’s attempt at martyrdom. His loyalties are torn between family and state as his wife Jia (Tuyen Do) prepares to offer sexual favours in return for information relating to the whereabout of their daughter, feared missing at the hands of Tibetan rebels. In Act I, Hannan’s flourishes go a long way towards concealing poor character development, but here in Act II, the play’s shortcomings become exposed as over-acted melodrama is allowed to take over.

Majumdar expounds a key theme through Ling (Gabby Wong), one of Deng’s officers. She argues that the cause of all conflicts is not tribalism nor faith nor territorial ambition, but fathers, blaming everything on paternalism. This is not the first time that it has been suggested that women would do a better job of running the world than men, but, curiously, the writer does not make the case with very much conviction and Ling’s outburst feels like little more than a diversion.

The bitterness and frustration of a community threatened with extinction under an authoritarian regime are brought out well in the strongest parts of Majumdar’s play, but his storytelling wanders off course and becomes confused. Perhaps he is trying to say too much and, in so doing, says very little that is new at all.

Performance date: 8 April 2019

Photo: Helen Murray

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: