Monday, 20 October 2014

CD Review: Bugsy Malone (NYMT 1997)

“We could have been anything that we wanted to be”

The news that the Lyric Hammersmith will be reopening with a production of Bugsy Malone will have rightly gladdened the hearts of all right-thinking people and it also reminded me that I had the soundtrack to the show that I’d not gotten round to listening to yet. Where the film (featuring the likes of Jodie Foster and Scott Baio, as well as Mark Curry, Dexter Fletcher and Bonnie Langford) dubbed adult voices onto its child performers, the National Youth Music Theatre mounted an all-youth production that ended up in the West End and which had amongst its number, a certain Sheridan Smith.

There’s real interest in the soundtrack for musical fans as Paul Williams donated songs that were not included in the film, ‘That’s Why They Call Me Dandy’ and ‘Show Business’, the first of which is quite an adorable character number for Dandy Dan (sung here by Stuart Piper and the company) and the second of which is no great shakes (sung by Alex Lee, presumably the Lena Marelli character). And amongst the more familiar numbers are some lovely arrangements which bolster the tunes – the second half of ‘I’m Feeling Fine’ becomes a tender duet, the utterly beautiful ‘Tomorrow’ enhanced by company BVs.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Three Sisters, White Bear

“You know what London pubs are like – you don’t know anyone and no-one knows your name”

Looking back over the blog, it turns out I’ve seen Chekhov’s Three Sisters four times in recent years and all of them have been a modern updating of some sort and now I’ve seen FiasCo Theatre’s version at a spruced up White Bear Theatre in Kennington, I’m on five for five. This uncredited adaptation sees the sisters moved to present day Britain, moved by their father from their beloved London to an unspecified place in the north (with a train station 12 miles away) and a military garrison nearby.

The Prozorovs are rechristened as the Earnshaws and in a nifty bit of renaming that nods to one of Chehov’s possible inspirations, Olga, Masha and Irina have become Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Ed Sheeran and Bastille may blast over the stereo but otherwise, the modern references are just lightly sprinkled throughout in just the right quantity - it is a pretty respectful, condensed take on the story which reiterates the crushing paralysis of inaction no matter the time or place.

Review: Rachel, Finborough

“I hear people talk about God’s justice and I wonder.”

Written in response to the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan contained in 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel has the remarkable tag of being the first play by an African-American woman to ever be produced professionally. Despite that, it has languished mostly unseen since then and this revival by the Finborough marks the European premiere and a contribution to the work of Black History Month. It’s easy to dismiss work such as this saying it has collected dust on the shelves for a reason but this fascinating context alone surely negates that and in Ola Ince’s production, dramatic reasons emerge too.

Commissioned by the NAACP (about whom I wrote my undergraduate dissertation oddly enough), it set out “to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people” about the African-American experience and given that it is still an ongoing struggle for playwrights today, what Weld Grimké achieved in the early 20th century is significant. There’s a lack of sophistication to her writing that is undeniable, the overly expositional dialogue clunks once too often in asking its searching questions about comprehension and compromise, as the educated but endearingly naïve Rachel comes to terms with the racist world she must engage with.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Review: MilkMilkLemonade, Ovalhouse

“Boys have to be boys”

I knew I’d like MilkMilkLemonade from the moment I read the publicity which introduced the word ‘bittersilly’ into my lexicon, a twist on the bittersweet realities of growing up different that reflects the persuasive, almost daft charm of Joshua Conkel’s writing. From the outset, it’s clear we’re in for something alternative (alt-country, even) as James Turner’s design has us sat on a circle of haybales with chickens made of balloons all around and a nervy narrator introducing us to the homespun delights of life on the chicken farm for Emory and his Nanna.

Except those delights are few and far between. Emory is a gay fifth-grader who loves nothing more than twirling his ribbon, playing with his doll Starlene and his best friend Linda (who just happens to be a giant chicken) and rehearsing his unique routine to ‘Anything Goes’ for the talent show that will be his ticket outta Hicksville. But that’s not how a boy’s supposed to be as the grim-faced oxygen-mask-guzzling Nanna constantly reminds him, Emory ought to spend more time with bullying pyromaniac Elliot from down the road, a true man’s man in the making.

Not-a-Review: The Cherry Orchard, Young Vic


I’d love to review Simon Stephens’ version of The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic but Katie Mitchell’s enthusiasm for the naturalistic approach meant I heard very little, and I mean very little of it. It’s not even as if I could see to lip-read either, the crepuscular lighting combining with a propensity to mutter and the choice that several made to speak with their backs to the audience. I’m not commenting on Mitchell’s artistic choices, I’m simply being truthful about how the basic difficulty of just hearing what was going on. And as such, I’m just not inclined to comment on anything more. If you have any sort of hearing problem, I urge you to ensure you get to the captioned performance on 27th November.

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Booking until 29th November

Review: Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Charing Cross Theatre

“Quand on n'a que l'amour
A s'offrir en partage”

No he’s not. Jacques Brel is dead and buried in French Polynesia next to Paul Gauguin but his unmistakable spirit is to be found in the oddly sterile surroundings of the Charing Cross Theatre in this revue of the music that made a maître of the world of chanson. Comprising nearly 30 of his songs performed by a company of four, director Andrew Keates has made a determined choice to avoid the concert-type presentation often associated with revues for something much more theatrical.

It is a choice that mostly works. Brel’s music explored the length and breadth of the human condition and Keates uses this to offer a wide variety of staging choices for the material, treating each song almost as its own little world whether it is love lost, love found, sailors drinking or funerals watched. They come in different forms too, a music hall vaudeville turn here, a dramatic scene played out amongst the cabaret tables up front there, and some pure uncomplicated singing for good measure too.

Saturday afternoon Gypsy treats

Gypsy gets the Saturday afternoon treatment here after Chichester’s brilliant revival.

La dame LuPone absolutely nailing it here, such emotional texture packed into every line and with incredible variation too – wish I’d been able to see this live.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Review: Guilt & Shame - Going Straight, Soho Theatre Upstairs

“Come and be a real man”


I couldn’t possibly start recommending that one should drink before every show but nestled in the late timeslot (10.15pm start) at the Soho Theatre, it would be rude not to imbibe at least a little before going in to see Guilt & Shame’s Going Straight (although I would imagine it is just as much fun whilst stone-cold-sober, as long as you’re up for it). Somewhere between a play and a comedy sketch – on entrance, we get a blue or pink hairnet depending on gender - it’s a raucous, supremely silly but also relentlessly funny experience that would be well worth searching out if there were more performances scheduled (tomorrow is the last night).


Gabriel Bisset-Smith and Robert Cawsey play Gabe and Rob, a pair of friends who are struggling with their sexuality. Well, Rob’s sexuality, he’s a gay virgin and overly vocally heterosexual Gabe is determined to get him on the straight (and narrow) by indoctrinating him in a six step program he has developed called The Church of Clarksianity. The tasks Rob must fulfil are increasingly daft and incorporate a great deal of audience participation which is where the loosened inhibitions may well come in useful (though I don’t think tonight’s audience needed too much guidance in the glory hole-based dance routine!)  

Review: Memphis, Shaftesbury Theatre

“Rock 'n' roll is just black people's blues sped up”

Though much of the US civil rights movement’s achievements came through political means, this time of huge shift in American society was also underpinned by significant cultural change and it is this that the Tony-award-winning show Memphis focuses on, in exploring how white radio DJ Huey Calhoun sent shockwaves over the airwaves of this Southern city in the 1950s by ignoring the entrenched racial divisions and playing ‘race’ music for all to hear. And as rock and roll began to capture the attention of the nation, so too was Huey’s attention completely captured by the soulful energy of upcoming singer Felicia Farrell and the underground blues club in which she performs (which belongs to her brother).

That she is black and he is not doesn’t matter to him but it sure as hell does to everyone else (they may sing that 'Everybody Wants To Be Black On A Saturday night' but there are still laws preventing mixed marriage) and it is this that provides the dramatic heft to Joe DiPietro’s book, such as it is, to this musical that otherwise puts its focus squarely on the music. And what an unexpected place that music comes from – David Bryan, who just happens to be Bon Jovi’s keyboard player – has compiled a fully original score which pulls in influences from Motown-flecked pop, gospel, R&B and 80s power ballads naturally (I mean, look at the guy’s hair!) – it’s highly tuneful if not instantly catchy but delivered with the conviction it is here, it demands the attention and will doubtless reward relistening (if not rewatching as well ;-))

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review: Barnum, New Wimbledon


“If I present an educated poochWho’s trained to dance the hoochie cooch 
What better way to waste a bit of time” 

We’re so used now to the big Chichester musicals making the automatic leap into the West End that it was something of a surprise to hear that last year’s Barnum would not be getting the much-rumoured transfer even with less than stellar reviews. And seeing the show for the first time tonight in its retooled version – Jean Pierre Van Der Spuy directing an adaptation of Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel’s CFT production - which is heading out on a very extensive UK tour that stretches to next August, it is not hugely difficult to see why, if one looks at it with a coolly dispassionate eye. 

Mark Bramble’s book has showman PT Barnum following his dreams to put on the world’s first travelling circus but little dramatic impetus to form a more interesting narrative journey. And Cy Coleman’s score with Michael Stewart’s lyrics has some pleasant enough songs in it – ‘Come Follow The Band’ and ‘There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute’ – but it also has a lot of filler; for such an ambitious show, it is a rather bland musical experience. Fortunately it is also blessed with some game-changing visuals and Andrew Wright’s peerless (certainly for his generation) choreographic gifts.

Review: East is East, Trafalgar Studios

“You not need to know my bloody business, missus”

There’s much indeed to love about East is East, the 1996 Ayub Khan Din play that was later made into a successful film (albeit one I have yet to catch), not least in the return of the remarkable Jane Horrocks to the stage and another of Tom Scutt’s impressive sets, marking him as one of the most interesting designers working in UK theatre at the moment. The play itself came at what could be considered a watershed moment in cultural representations of British Asians but given what has happened in the 20 or so years that have passed since its writing, it is interesting to consider how it stacks up now against today’s society. 

The tale is an autobiographical one – Khan Din was himself part of a large family from Salford with a white British mother and a Pakistani father and a thinly disguised version of this household is what he puts on stage. It’s 1971 and George’s overbearing paterfamilias is keen for his seven children to respect and revere their sub-continental heritage, especially at a time when East Pakistan was fighting for its independence. He’s appalled that his children consider themselves more British than Asian though and have no respect for the customs he would impose upon them, especially in the arranged marriages he tries to secure for the family.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Review: The Infidel, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“I've got some money in ISAs, 
But none of it goes to ISIS”

With songs about fatwas, foreskins and fundamentalism amongst many others, it is clear that this musical adaptation of 2010 film The Infidel has no truck with the easily offended and rightly so. Initially one may be a little disarmed by the frankness with which the opening number makes the simple but telling point that Muslims are real people too but the warm encouragement to laugh along with them soon becomes irresistible as the wickedly observed sense of humour in David Baddiel’s book and lyrics overcomes any lingering reservations. 

It helps that lead character Mahmud Nasir is so wonderfully, whole-heartedly appealing in a cracking performance from Kev Orkian as a typical everyman cab driver who swears, enjoys a beer and yeah, happens to be Muslim. This relaxed, modern approach to Islam extends to his family – Mina Anwar’s fantastic Saamiya and newly-engaged son Rashid, the highly likeable Gary Wood – but Mahmud is thrown a curveball when going through the effects of his deceased mother, he discovers adoption papers that indicate he was actually born Solly Shimshillewitz to Jewish parents.