Sunday, 31 May 2015

Review: Kafka on the Shore, Barbican

“It’s like some weird avant-garde play”

Tumbling dreamily into the world of Japanese magic realism, Yukio Ninagawa’s spectacular production of Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore makes a sadly too-short stop at the Barbican, which is a real shame at it is one of the more visually striking plays of the year. Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s design of transparent boxes is the ideal vehicle for the swirling twin narratives of the story, in all their freeform strangeness as talking cats, murdered sculptors, Johnnie Walker himself, former pop stars, women’s toilet campaigners and much more beside come into play in Frank Galati’s adaptation.

On the one hand there’s 15 year old Kafka Tamura who runs away from his overbearing father and their Tokyo home with his imaginary friend Crow, ever dreaming of the mother who abandoned him as a young boy. And on the other there’s Satoru Nakata, an elderly gentleman who was afflicted by a childhood incident which severely stunted his development but left him able to communicate with cats. Stretching across Japan and delving effortlessly in and out of both fantastical realms and real life, their dream-like journeys slowly coalesce into one bewitching reverie.

Cast of Kafka on the Shore continued

Review: And Then There Were None, Richmond Theatre

Ten Little Indians were not PC;
but better than th’original from Mrs Christie.

(So) Nine Little Soldier Boys were chosen instead;
To set up the rhyme, leaving ten people dead.

Eight Little Soldier Boys now touring the UK;
From Jan’ry to November with this well-travelled play.

Seven Little Soldier Boys might call this a classic;
Most likely since its done the rounds since the Jurassic.

(But) Six Little Soldier Boys cannot deny;
A master storyteller whose works will never die.

Five Little Soldier Boys might say to you;
Pay some attention here and get a big clue.

Four Little Soldier Boys will spot some TV stars;
Emmerdale, Blue Peter, Pascoe, crowdpleasers hurrah!

Three Little Soldier Boys will also see Paul Nicholas;
A permatanned acting colossus, his presence here will trick us.

Two Little Soldier Boys produced by Bill Kenwright;
But no role here for Miss Seagrove, I hope their future’s still bright.

(Now) One Little Soldier will give you guilty pleasure;
Directed by Joe Harmston, it’s a mystery to treasure.

The name of the show is And Then There Were None
Now I'm rhyming with Susan Penhaligon

Review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, Criterion

“Learning to let go”

Just a quickie for this one-off – a fundraiser for the Make A Difference Trust of this late 1980s song cycle inspired by the AIDS memorial quilt. The original London production actually transferred to the Criterion - where tonight’s show was – from the King’s Head but it’s a little difficult to see how this production with its nearly 50-strong company could ever have been scaled down to fit into that Islington pub theatre. But given how the show is made up of individual songs and monologues, each inspired by a different panel on the quilt representing the life of someone who has died from HIV/AIDS, its inherent flexibility shows how it can take whatever form is needed.

Here, Stephen Whitson’s production takes on a new 21st century version of the book by Bill Russell, the updating of which has mixed results. Contemporary references clang a little awkwardly but there’s more of a problem in that neither the fast-moving world of medical advancements nor the changing nature of the epidemic itself are really reflected – the show is already a period piece in so many ways that it perhaps would be better to leave it that way rather than trying to chase a relevance that would be better served by a completely separate part two.

Cast of Elegies... continued

Cast of Elegies... continued

Cast of Elegies... continued

CD Review: Scott Alan Live

“And there it is…”

For a composer who hasn’t had a major show on over here, Scott Alan inspires an amazing amount of evangelical joy from his fans. This has come from a series of albums and concerts in which his songwriting has been showcased by a wide-ranging collection of Broadway and West End stars, culminating in a rapturously received residency at the St James Theatre a couple of months ago. I like his work, having previously reviewed a couple of his albums, but I haven’t as ecstatic as some about it so I thought I’d go back to the ones I hadn’t listened to. 

His double album Live offers reworkings of many of his songs and mixes things up further by retaining many of his frequent collaborators but letting them loose on different songs, even switching up genders on some of them. It’s a great move – Natalie Weiss smashes the joyful ‘I’m A Star’, Laura Osnes wraps her delicate voice beautifully around ‘Now’ and Jeremy Jordan is charming as ever on ‘Please Don’t Let Me Go’ and that’s all in the opening five songs. The slightly indulgent length of the album means we don’t always maintain such intense quality over both discs plus bonus tracks.

Scott Alan Live cast continued

Scott Alan Live cast continued

Scott Alan Live cast continued

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Review: buckets, Orange Tree

“What we want – and you know this, but I’ll say it again – what we need is lists. People like lists. They share lists”

One of the more difficult jobs that Paul Miller has had, dealing with the loss of Arts Council England funding aside, is in bridging the gap between the old and the new at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. As the incoming Artistic Director, his debut season has more than doubled the number of first-time visitors to this in-the-round space – fuelled by buzz-worthy successes like Pomona, soon to be revived at the National – but Miller has also kept a keen eye on existing audiences, making sure that the shift in programming, with a wide range of new writers and directors, hasn’t come at their expense but rather just widened the remit of this venue.

And it is tempting to see buckets , the latest production there, as something of a bridge – Rania Jumaily is the Orange Tree’s Resident Director and first-time (full-length) writer Adam Barnard started as a trainee director here back in 2003 but together, they’ve come up with a subtly forward-thinking piece of theatre. Initial impressions are a little reminiscent of a Gap advert with the company of six draped in shades of blue and white and flowers scattered around a stage dominated by a stainless steel slide but in the midst of James Turner’s innocuous-seeming set, an intriguing mode of storytelling emerges.

Review: The Theory of Relativity, Drayton Arms

“Find your favourite fruit”

Given that in ‘Quiet’, Matilda is giving West End audiences lessons on the speed of light, it is brave of another show to enter into the same arena but given the college student age of the protagonists here, one can forgive writer Brian Hill and composer Neil Bartram. Their show The Theory of Relativity, previously seen in Toronto, lies somewhere between chamber musical, song cycle and even revue as eight characters explore the random connections in life (a popular theme this week after buckets) and discover the web of links that result from our actions, even if we’re unaware of how far-reaching they truly are.

The US college bias of the writing skews the experience a little but most of the trials and tribulations experienced here are universally felt – the fluttering nerves of first loves and coming out, dealing with upheaval and change, the pain of loss of love or life. And a large part of the relatability comes from the warmth and openness of the performances here – Jodie Steele’s affecting heartbreak in ‘Me and Ricky’, Ina Marie Smith’s plaintive lament for her mother in ‘Promise Me’, Joshua LeClair’s powerfully felt ‘Footprint’, all supported by some fine work from MD Barney Ashworth from the keyboard.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Review: The Beaux’ Stratagem, National Theatre

“A man dare not play the tyrant in London, because there are so many examples to encourage the subject to rebel.”

It may be The Beaux’ Stratagem but it is Mrs Sullen’s play. The most striking thing about Simon Godwin’s production of George Farquhar’s final Restoration comedy is its determinedly proto-feminist stance as Mrs Sullen – an independently wealthy woman now desperately unhappily married – is given surprising agency to express herself in a meaningful way and attempt to extricate herself from her situation. And in Susannah Fielding’s superbly silken performance, she’s exquisitely played as an almost tragicomic figure, endlessly entertaining in the raucous romping around but as Jon Clark’s lighting picks her out at the end of each act, capable of holding the entire Olivier theatre’s hearts in her hands.

The beaux ain’t too bad either. Farquhar’s plot centres on their attempts to marry into money after squandering their fortunes in London. Hoping news of their disgrace hasn’t reached the provinces, they head north and stop off in Lichfield, pretending to be master and servant, where their attentions fall on a rich young heiress and her unhappily married sister-in-law. Samuel Barnett’s Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Archer are a witty pair of fellows indeed, with a cracking line in beautifully cut overcoats too, as their avaricious adventures are soon overturned by amorous attentions as they can’t help but fall head over well-turned heel for their marks.

Cast of The Beaux' Stratagem continued

Sunday, 24 May 2015

CD Review: Kim Criswell – Back To Before

“Where are they now, those women who stared from the mirror?”

I saw Kim Criswell for the first time onstage earlier this month in Carrie and whilst I may not have loved the show, her shimmering soprano and performance was a stand-out for me. It happened to be an evening with a Q&A afterwards too and she came across as an absolute hoot - pint in hand, regaling us all with tales from the past, I instantly wanted to know more about who she was. So where else to turn first but to her 1999 CD Back To Before.

A glimpse at the track-listing doesn’t immediately show a huge sense of adventurousness. Four Lloyd Webber tracks, Oliver! and Les Mis elsewhere, it’s not really the stuff to make you sit up and pay attention. That happens when Criswell opens her mouth – whether fabulously wrestling Evita’s ‘Rainbow High’ into submission or dealing out a bold and brassy ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, there’s something remarkable about the forceful control of her vocal.

Review: The Hudsucker Proxy, Nuffield

"I wasn’t expecting all this hoopla…”

It's not been the easiest of births for The Hudsucker Proxy - an incident in the dress rehearsal left two actors hospitalised, fortunately both have now been discharged and are recuperating at home, and the decision was made to forge ahead with the show, recasting where necessary. The show is certainly an interesting prospect - a co-production between Nuffield and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse in association with Complicite, and the first ever theatrical adaptation of a Coen Brothers film too - and its doors are now finally open in Southampton, ahead of a trip to Liverpool and then an international tour in the near future.

And you can see it succeeding. The show uncovers realms of theatrical influences in the Coen Brothers’ work but also adds in much of its own, to create a dizzying screwball comedy that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. It would be churlish to give too much away but there are some inspired moments of staging in Simon Dormandy and Toby Sedgwick’s staging, especially concerning the window of the 44th floor office in which much of the drama is set. The physical work here is explicit too, the company relying on their own bodies as much as Dick Bird’s magnificent art deco-inflected set design to create constantly imaginative sequences.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Review: Constellations, New Victoria

“An indented rule indicates a change in universe"
When a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party, the first few lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations suggest a rom-com in the making as time restarts and a new possibility plays out, it’s clear that there’s something much more eloquently sophisticated at work here. Premiering at the Royal Court upstairs, Michael Longhurst’s production manages to be both intimate and epic, the story of two people somehow expanding to fill several universes of heartfelt emotion.

When a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party, the first few lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations suggest a rom-com in the making as time restarts and a new possibility plays out, it’s clear that there’s something much more eloquently sophisticated at work here. Transferring from the Royal Court upstairs to the Duke of York’s in the West End, Michael Longhurst’s production sacrifices nothing in the scaling up to the larger venue and if anything, gains in epic power.

When a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party, the first few lines of Nick Payne’s play Constellations suggest a rom-com in the making as time restarts and a new possibility plays out, it’s clear that there’s something much more eloquently sophisticated at work here. Marking the Broadway debut for all concerned, Michael Longhurst’s production manages the transatlantic transfer seamlessly and one wonders where the show could end up next.

Woking. After successes in the West End and on Broadway, Nick Payne’s play Constellations is now touring the UK, starting off at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking. Which is as good a place as any to see a rooftop beekeeper and quantum cosmologist meet-cute at a party and find themselves exploring the many possibilities that their relationship could take as scenes are played and replayed, shifting their journey together subtly but ineffably into new places. 

Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. Perfect casting for the effervescent, wise-cracking Marianne and the slightly nerdish but endlessly endearing Roland, their intensity beautifully matched especially in the poignant flashforwards.

Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. That perfect casting retained for the transfer, their ease with each other and the technical challenges of the script even smoother than before and if the larger venue challenged them at all, there was no evidence of it.

Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal. All change for Broadway – Wilson’s immense subtleties (is that an oxymoron?) made an ideal, if less kooky, Marianne and Gyllenhaal gave an interestingly judged performance as Roland, less obviously blokey but no less moving.

Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong. And to the tour, Brealey really makes her mark with a more brittle, abrasive interpretation that contrasts so effectively with the warmer moments, and Armstrong exudes a hugely likeable affability that you would certainly chase across universes to find and keep.

Can I really put my finger on why I like this play so much? Why I think it is one of the smartest pieces of new writing that I’ve seen in recent years? I’m not sure that I can.
It’s to do with the way it wears its scientific concepts so lightly – I mean I couldn’t tell you anything about quantum physics right now but during the play, it feels like maybe I could.
It’s to do with the all-too-human instinct to wonder what if I’d done that differently, what path might that have led me down.
It’s to do with the expression of such powerfully felt emotion that yet feels intelligently reasoned.
It’s to do with free will.
It’s to do with love.

I cried a little bit. Well quite a bit.

I cried so much I couldn’t speak for about quarter of an hour afterwards.

I cried a lot, but a New Year’s Day hangover probably had something to with my emotional state too.

I cried a surprisingly small amount, almost just the artful single tear in fact.

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired – I don’t tweet him. Atom-based clusters of balloons trail from the corridor into the theatre, hexagonal tiles mark out the physical space the actors occupy, and Lee Curran’s lighting tracks the darkening mood perfectly.  

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired – I don’t tweet him. Some of the finer details are lost in the larger space but the evolving scale of the work is artfully done, capturing something even grander about the emotional contours of the play. This time, it is the sound design by David McSeveney that resonates stronger, delineating each fundamental shift so clearly.  

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired - I tweet him, I don’t meet him. It looks as good as ever but the detail of Curran’s lighting is what captures my attention – the shift in the flashes of colour through to blood red, the antiseptic white of the harsh future scenes, the individual balloons picked out in lights with their own secrets.

Tom Scutt’s design is inspired – I tweet him, I don’t meet him and now I probably never will. Since the show has been end-on, there’s been a key scenic detail that I’ve missed every time. Every time. There aren't enough potential universes to explain this. I need to go again.

Can I put my finger on why I like Constellations so much?
Even on my fourth viewing, there are details that come to me anew.
There are details that have still yet eluded me.
There are scenes that somehow pack a gut-punch as fierce as the first time - why wouldn't language shift that way.
There are replayed scenes that I could continue to watch over and over - notes in hand or not :-)   
And in perfect keeping with the theme of the show, Michael Longhurst has kept the production the same but different, or is it different but the same in a remarkable way. Marianne may wear an almost identical outfit whether it's Hawkins, Wilson or Brealey wearing the shoes but she has exuded such a singular sense each time which has been breathtaking to behold. And partnered by the affable/affectionate/rumpled charms of Spall/Gyllenhaal/Armstrong, they've all been Marianne and Roland but their own Marianne and Roland and brilliantly so.

I loved it.

I loved it.

I loved it.

I loved it.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Helen Maybanks
Booking until 17th May, then touring to Liverpool Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic, Nuffield Theatre Southampton, The Lowry Salford, Cambridge Arts, Richmond Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Review: McQueen, St James

“I came for a dress”

It has barely been five years since fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s death but 2015 has already seen Savage Beauty, a major retrospective of his work, open at the Victoria and Albert Museum and now McQueen, a biographical fantasia by James Phillips which is taking to the catwalk at the St James Theatre. And in keeping with the edgy energy of the runway shows for which he was renowned, this is no straight play but rather a highly theatrical production that tries to capture some of the imaginative artistry that characterised his work.

Model-like dancers strut their stuff on the stage in striking choreography by Christopher Marney, all made up ; fashionistas in exquisite headwear pose nonchalantly around them, a haunting pair of strange twins skip around the fringes and in the middle is Lee, a London lad done good but in serious danger of being overwhelmed by the empire he’s built around him. Into this mix, from the tree in his garden, comes the troubled Dahlia - maybe a girl, maybe a fairytale creature, either way she’s his companion on a night-time odyssey to get her a dress but which also forces them to confront the demons that haunt them both.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Review: Far From The Madding Crowd, Watermill

“I am not morally yours”

Truth be told, after a dodgy time with The Woodlanders in an English Lit elective at uni, I’ve pretty much kept my distance from Thomas Hardy. So it might be a little surprise that I ventured to the wilds of West Berkshire and the Watermill Theatre to see this adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd but Jessica Swale is the kind of delightful director who is worth travelling for, plus she has a predilection for casting Sam Swainsbury in things which means she is my lobster :-)

This actor-musicianish production is really cleverly staged as Philip Engeheart’s versatile and movable set design evokes an appropriate sense of rural charm with witty and ingenious touches allowing memorable representations of key events such as the harvesting of the wheat and untold business with sheep and lambs (where even this hardened soul had to admire the skill of the puppetry). With Catherine Jayes’ music underscoring much of the action, the pastoral atmosphere feels just right.

Review: Klippies, Southwark Playhouse

“You think because you black you know what it’s like to live in a township?”

In a baking hot schoolyard in a suburb on the edge of Johannesburg, an unlikely alliance gradually builds up between two teenage girls but in a post-apartheid South Africa in its eighteenth year of democracy, the winds of change are blowing strongly across the veld. Thandi comes from a well-to-do Zulu family and has aspirations to be a lawyer, Afrikaner Yolandi is from the rougher side of town and finds herself having to act as a lookout for her brother whilst he strips their teacher’s car for parts. But despite of, or maybe because of, their differences, a bond starts to grow. 

Jessica Siân’s Klippies details the progression of this friendship with a startling clarity that speaks so much of the forthrightness of youth but also of a nation that is changing so quickly in some ways, yet unable to let go of the past in others. Illicit bottles of brandy, homemade tattoos and heady passions characterise their tumble into a wondrous seclusion from the real world but try as they might, the scars of racial politics are hard to escape and the differences in their family situations, though equally troubled, threatens to pull them apart.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Review: Sense of an Ending, Theatre503

“In this world, I cannot be who I was”

Cecilia Carey’s set design for Sense of an Ending at Theatre503 is surely one of the best of the year so far – deceptively simple to behold but wonderfully inventive and empathetic to the story it houses. Multi-coloured panels in a false wall initially suggest the evocative beauty of stained glass but as the play progresses, they are sculpted by Joshua Pharo’s lighting into conduits into the past, compelling reminders of the present and suggestions of the future looming over the characters of Ken Urban’s Rwanda-set play.

All three time periods are important but it is the past that is most significant. It’s 1999 and two Hutu nuns stand accused of aiding and/or abetting a massacre in their church in the 1994 genocide that decimated this African country’s population. An American journalist, haunted by his own demons, arrives at the prison they’re being held at to throw attention on their case but in a nation where the healing process has scarcely begun, notions of truth and reconciliation are hard to come by as conflicting accounts cast doubt on their presumed innocence. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

TV Review: The Affair, Sky Atlantic

“Why don’t you tell me how it began”

A belated UK premiere for this Golden Globe-winning drama over on Sky Atlantic and a much-welcomed one at that, as this is a cracking piece of television. I caught up with The Affair, created by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, during my New York trip at New Year, its 10 episodes getting me through a day off sick and the downtime in my hotel, and starring Ruth Wilson as it does, it provided a serendipitous counterpart to her stellar turn in Constellations (more of which anon).

The basic premise of the show is the affair between schoolteacher and struggling novelist Noah (Dominic West) and grieving waitress Alison (Wilson) during his family’s summer holiday in the Long Island resort town where she lives and works. As we see, the effects ripple out well into their extended families but the hook is that each episode is divided in two – each protagonist giving their version of the same events, giving their own different perspective on what actually happened.

TV Review: The Vote, Donmar Warehouse via All4

"This after all has been a very careful election"

A fascinating experiment from James Graham and Josie Rourke, The Vote was a “play for theatre and television” which after two weeks of performances at the Donmar Warehouse – for which you had to enter a ballot for tickets – aired live on More4 at the very moment that it was set, the night of the UK general election. I wasn’t one of the lucky few in the ballot and am rarely inclined to dayseat (though I know several people who managed it) so I’ve only just got around to catching up with it on All4 (formerly 4OD) where it is on for another couple of weeks.

I’m glad I did get to see it as it is very funny and pulled together an extraordinary cast, the vast majority of whom spend mere moments onstage. Graham’s play focuses on the trials and tribulations of a South London polling station in the 90 minutes before voting closes and though there’s a farcical plot that holds the play together in the larger sense, the real joy comes in the microstories of the various voters who come in to exercise their democratic right as best they see fit. Drunks losing their polling cards, giddy lesbians brandishing selfie sticks, teenagers asking Siri who to vote for, all amusing slices of life are represented by a stellar cast who seem to be having just as much as the audience.

Cast of The Vote continued

Cast of The Vote continued

Cast of The Vote continued

CD Review: John-Victor – Shoot…Bang!

"Turn your bedroom into a nightclub"

Somewhat ironically, just last week I inferred that it's a much more diverse prospect to collate a lyricist's work, as opposed to to a composer, into a cohesive album whilst reviewing wordsmith Lesley Ross' new CD. But turning to one of Ross' musical collaborators on that disc - John-Victor - I've immediately been proven wrong with Shoot...Bang! This is new musical theatre writing as you've rarely heard it, genuinely original and fiercely contemporary and yes, hugely wide-ranging in its content.

Pulling together excerpts from four of his musicals in various stages of development (some with Perfect Pitch) War and Fleece and Barry the Penguin (a black and white Christmas) written with Lesley Ross, and Carla Cthulu and Chick with Paul Roberts, what instantly strikes you is the immediacy of the music. It's club tunes, it's pop songs, it's radio hits, all fed through with an essential thread of musical theatre but emerging with the kind of freshness that is, well, so refreshing to hear. It is clear to see why pop bands have called him in to help co-write hits for them but the prospect of hearing this music in fully-fleshed out shows in theatres is a hugely exciting prospect for the future.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Review: Flames, Waterloo East

“You’ll live your life in constant fear 
We’ll have to make him disappear” 

Cripes. Flames is described as a “suspense-filled musical thriller” but whether intentional or not, it proved to be one of the funniest things I've seen this year. Its campy, schlocky vibes are like an episode of Sunset Beach happening before your very eyes and yet played with such seriousness, I’m really not sure that that is what they were aiming for at all. Stephen Dolginoff - whose Thrill Me has recently been revived for a UK tour – once again takes on sole duty for book, music and lyrics to explore murderous mystery but I’m not sure these flames have ignited in the way he might have intended, here at the Waterloo East Theatre. 

Stockbroker Edmond died in disgrace a year ago in a fire and fiancée Meredith and best friend Eric are paying their respects at his graveside but they’re haunted by several questions. Did he really commit a terrible crime before dying? If so, where’s the money? Is it ok for Eric to have the hots for his dead best friend’s girl? Why does she take her coat off if it’s a stormy night? And how are those candles meant to be staying alight? Does Eric need his eyes testing? In fact, do they all need their eyes testing – no-one seems to see anyone coming in this cemetery. And just how sharp is that umbrella? 

Review: Product, Arcola

"In one day Europe will be destroyed: the Hague, the Reichstag, Tate Modern"

It’s always good to see an actor having a ‘moment’ and after blazing through the twisted sexual discoveries of How I Learned To Drive earlier this year, Olivia Poulet adds another solid gold success to her theatrical CV with Mark Ravenhill’s Product. An intense monologue originally performed by the playwright, a fierce indictment of a Hollywood culture that could have been ripped from the leaked Sony emails of last year, had it not been written 10 years ago. Plus ça change…

Poulet takes on the role of Leah, a film producer on the hunt for her next lucrative project and thinks she might have found it in Mohammed and Me, a jihadi chick-flick which she is pitching to an unseen film star. It’s intentionally atrocious, a woman who falls in love with a handsome stranger who happens to be pals with Osama Bin Laden – who makes a cameo himself – yet Ravenhill, and Poulet, ground this sharp-edged satire in a thoroughly believable version of movieland.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Restaurant review: Kettners, Soho

A bit of a digression from the usual fare as the biggest fan of a mint-green trouser suit Rebecca (from Official Theatre) organised a rather splendiferous occasion for some of the #LDNTheatreBloggers to try their hand at a bit of food reviewing. Keen to turn my hand to a serious appraisal of some culinary delights (who am I kidding, free food!), I was more than happy to accept the invitation to sample the pre-theatre menu at Kettners, on Romilly Street in Soho, just behind the Palace Theatre

The pre- (and post-) theatre menu changes on a daily basis but you can see above what was on offer on Monday, reflecting the modern European bent to the cooking here. Two courses will set you back a reasonable £21.50, if you've got the time, three courses is £24.40 - the menu is served Monday-Saturday 5pm - 6.30pm and 10pm until close, giving you plenty of time to get to any of many nearby theatres.

Review: Billy Elliot, Victoria Palace

"What does it feel like when you're dancing?"

I got to revisit Billy Elliot the Musical as part of its 10th birthday celebrations this year and huge amounts of fun it was too - more than I was expecting actually since having seen the show before. But despite having run for a decade now, the production feels as fresh and exciting as ever, undoubtedly still "one of the best shows in town". The full review can be read on Official Theatre here.   

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Booking until 17th December 2016, for now

Cast of Billy Elliot continued

Cast of Billy Elliot continued

Sunday, 10 May 2015

CD Review: Love, Lies & Lyrics – The Words of Lesley Ross

“Why do whores only sing in musicals?" 

Showcasing the work of a lyricist is a different prospect from that of a composer, something that is immediately apparent from glancing at the cover and booklet of Love, Lies & Lyrics – The Words of Lesley Ross, the latest new musical theatre CD emerge from the nurturing cocoon of SimG Records. This album features music from 4 different writers, taken from over a dozen musicals, with the now customary array of West End stars – over 30 in number here – so it can’t help but be highly eclectic as a collection, in something of a similar vein to Robert Gould’s collection from last year.

The diversity of this approach certainly has its benefits, especially as man of the songs are around the 2 minute mark, as it means the album can bounce around wryly comic observation songs like ‘Pick A Ticket!’ and ‘Him in 23B’ to the more heartfelt but still story-led balladry of Nigel Richards’ ‘And In My Heart’ and Annalene Beechey’s ‘Song for Someone’. If I had to pick, Madalena Alberto’s plaintive lullaby ‘I Will Be There’ is the highlight of the record – its gorgeously delicate emotion coming from a perfect confection of lyric, music and performance. 

Cast of Love, Lies and Lyrics continued

Cast of Love, Lies and Lyrics continued

CD Review: Ruthie Henshall – I’ve Loved These Days

“It's like that there's a music playing in your ear”

For one reason or another, Ruthie Henshall and I had never crossed paths until this last week but with two different performances on two consecutive days, she left me in no doubt as to how well-earned her reputation is. As Sally in Follies, she broke our hearts whilst losing her mind and as Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, she beautifully embodies the kind of teacher we'd all love to have. So I thought it was high time to indulge in the collection of albums she has released, starting with I've Loved These Days from 2013.

Naturally, there’s some indulging of her hard-won stagey credentials with rip-roaring takes on classics like ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ and a highly enjoyable romp through ‘Adelaide’s Lament’. There’s also a nod or two to her theatrical CV – a return trip to Cook County Jail but on the other side of the bars as she tackles ‘When You’re Good To Mama’, knowing exactly of what she speaks. And her current turn in Billy Elliot is represented with an elegantly powerful rendition of Billy’s anthem ‘Electricity’.

Re-review: Return to the Forbidden Planet, Palace Theatre Manchester

"Live long and prosper-o"

There's no doubting that I do get spoiled around my birthday and so part of a weekend trip home saw eight of us head over to the Palace Theatre in Manchester to see Return to the Forbidden Planet, on a night which saw the end of their tour. I've already seen this production (review here) but the show is just one of those evergreen delights for me that I could just watch over and over, even if it isn't the most perfect piece of theatre (that first half remains too long).

It was entertaining to catch their final show of this run too, there's always a special air to these performances and you could definitely see the cast having fun, both with us and each other - we were made to reverse polarity for perhaps a little longer than was strictly necessary and it was nice to see all the ensemble members get their chance to shine in the extended finale. I don't know what the future will hold for the Forbidden Planet, its retro charms remain perhaps rather niche, but you can rest assured that should it pop up again on tour, I'll be there - hands above my head - reversing polarity.

Review: Carrie, Southwark Playhouse

“You’re not like the other girls…”

American writer Peter Stone once said “musicals are written and then rewritten” but no matter how many iterations a show receives, few go down in history as truly memorable. The musical adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie managed that feat in the late 1980s, though for the wrong reasons, when the moderately-received RSC production transferred to Broadway and swiftly became a multi-million dollar flop, lasting for just 16 previews and 5 performances.

Finally taking Stone’s advice after a long period licking their wounds, book writer Lawrence D Cohen, composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford – undoubtedly boosted by the show’s growing cult reputation – substantially reworked Carrie in 2012 and it is that version that is now seeing the light of day with Gary Lloyd’s production at the Southwark Playhouse – its London debut no less. Was it worth the wait? Did it deserve to flop? Does she make things fly? Does she get covered in blood? 

Cast of Carrie continued

Friday, 8 May 2015

Review: The Lonely Soldier Monologues, Cockpit

“I only hope that my ancestors will forgive me, or that I will be able to forgive myself”

Having spent many years interviewing female veterans, Helen Benedict has parlayed their experiences into a hard-hitting and award-winning range of writing – books, novels and now a play in The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Much of her work has been around uncovering the hidden voice of women who have served, and suffered, in the different branches of the US military – a subject that remains as pertinent today as when Benedict started, as demonstrated by the case of Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement here in the UK.

The Lonely Soldier Monologues focuses on US soldiers though, those who fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, and wraps together seven such stories, playing out their experiences in parallel. Split roughly into three sections – before the war, during and then after an interval, coming home – it’s a powerfully affecting piece of work, laying bare not only the innate misogyny of so revered an institution but also the personal tragedies it wrought on the service personnel who enlisted, unaware that they’d be fighting the enemy within as much as the enemy without.

Review: High Society, Old Vic

“Not bad for a 35 year old”

Kevin Spacey’s swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic doesn’t open officially until next week but I only have a handful of days left for the above quote to remain pertinent to myself so I’m writing up High Society now - the usual disclaimers about previews apply. Maria Friedman’s directorial debut was the highly critically acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along so it makes sense for her to return to the world of musical theatre with this Cole Porter classic, given added spin here as the venue remains in the round.

It’s a funny old piece though, Arthur Kopit’s book is based on Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story and follows the trials of Tracy Lord (I didn’t know they had Tracys in the 1930s), a rich socialite about to get married who suddenly finds herself with three suitors – her dull fiancé, a charismatic tabloid journalist and her dashing ex-husband. As the pre-wedding parties start and the champagne flows liberally, there’s decisions to be made and some of Porter’s finest songs to be sung but little real fizz, to start with at least.

Cast of High Society continued

Monday, 4 May 2015

Review: As Good A Time As Any, Print Room

“It’s very peaceful…”

It’s often that the mind thinks to compare Peter Gill with Simon Stephens but sitting through the former’s self-directed new play As Good A Time As Any in the surroundings of the Print Room at the Coronet cinema in Notting Hill, one couldn’t help but wonder what a different director might have made of it. The playtext for Stephens’ Carmen Disruption allows for, even actively encourages, directorial innovation, offering up a world of theatrical potential (in this case, ingeniously realised by Michael Longhurst) but there’s little of that imagination spilling forth from Gill.

Which is not to denigrate the quality of the writing here, which has a hypnotically compelling quality that transports its naturalism to a higher plane. The play consists of eight women sharing their everyday thoughts in all their banal humdrumness, divided into five choruses that break up the rhythm and interweaving with each other to demonstrate that no matter how different we think we are from the person across the street, the stranger sat opposite on the tube, the seatmate in a never-changing waiting room, we’re all pretty much the same, thinking pretty much the same thoughts.

A simple premise it may seem but it is powerfully, profoundly, explored here, beautifully eloquent in expressing the different struggles that people in articulating the true depths of their own truths, whether the pain of the loss of a child or a loved one, troubling divorces or painful pasts - the crippling fear of loneliness underscoring so many of the revelations that finally come to light as the monologues wind their way to the point that they need to make, in order to show they’ve survived and by extension how we can survive too. 

Gill’s staging doesn’t quite match to the writing though, the women group themselves differently around two back-to-back rows of chairs for each iteration of the chorus but there’s little movement besides, little sense of dynamism infused into the production that doesn’t stem from the linguistic feats being achieved by these actors. Bruce McLean’s abstract design hints at what can come from pushing conventional boundaries a little but whilst I can’t help but wonder what another director might have brought to the production, there’s no doubting the classic quality of what is before us here. 

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 23rd May 

Review: In A Better Place, Hotel Pelirocco – Brighton Fringe

“Angel Delight, at a funeral?”

In the august surroundings of Brighton’s Regency Square, the Hotel Pelirocco is something of a subversive delight inside – a boutique hotel with an extraordinary range of themed bedrooms inspired by the likes of Bettie Page, Diana Dors, Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Sex Pistols. And it is in Bettie’s Boudoir – who knew you could fit so much leopardprint into one room… - that Caroline Byrne’s In A Better Place begins, as we eavesdrop on a squabbling couple.

They’re arguing because they’ve missed the funeral they came down to Brighton for, increasingly suspicious behaviour from Jay causing Priya to question her husband but neither are in the mood for talking, never mind paying belated tribute to their friend Eva. So she cools her heels whilst straightening her hair and he heads down to the bar (as do the audience) to catch up with his mates but the unwitting banter that follows unleashes a whole world of seriously pent-up marital strife.

Review: Pond Wife, Otherplace at the Basement: The Pit – Brighton Fringe

"This isn't your destiny, child"

There aren't enough shows that reveal Britney Spears' songs to be the motivational life lessons that they are. And likewise culturally, we've ignored the very real warnings that the seer-like Anastasia gave us. Fortunately, Holly&Ted are here to right these wrongs in Pond Wife, a loose reimagining of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Mermaid through the prism of '90s pop music, a ton of glitter and a multi-purpose bath-tub.

In its best moments, this is a fabulously funny and wittily constructed show that purloins lyrical pearls and truisms from pretty much every pop act on the Now 44 album. It is so dazzlingly done that by the time you've gigglingly worked out where one snippet comes from, you've missed the next two and combined with the high camp of our mermaid’s journey to break through the 'glass ceiling' of the sea into a human world stuffed full of pop music for her to discover for the first time, it is cheering stuff.

Review: Eigengrau, Otherplace at the Basement: The Pit – Brighton Fringe

"I think you need to believe in something"

The metropolitan loneliness epitomised by Penelope Skinner's Eigengrau seems as appropriate in London-by-the-sea as it does in the London where it is set, indeed one can feel this alone anywhere. Cassie's passion for her political activism continues to set her apart from others her own age, Mark has got money but is struggling to hold onto his mates, Tim is using his grief for his nan to avoid getting on with life and Rose, well she's just struggling to reconcile her dream of true love in a world full of bastards and bills.

As their paths variously intersect, they all reach out in the hope of connection, of finding something tangible in a city that never stops moving past them but life is never quite as easy as all that, especially when sex is thrown into the equation. And so begins the whirl of Skinner's extremely funny play, given a solid production here by Hannah Joss which focuses on just how sharp the writing is as brutal truths follow amorous deceptions, and hopeless fancies turn into desperate actions.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

CD Review: Madalena Alberto – Don’t Cry For Me

“The answer was here all the time”

Capitalising on her long-running stint in the UK tour of Evita which culminated in a stint at the Dominion Theatre, Madalena Alberto’s 2014 album relies heavily on that role, featuring three songs from that show as well as using it for its title. Her versions of ‘Don’t Cry For Argentina’ and ‘You Must Love Me’ are naturally both very good but it is the heartfelt ‘Lament’ that really shows how good she was in the role, slowly building to a fiercely emotional climax with a heartbreaking finale.

Elsewhere she delves further into the world of musical theatre, tackling standards like Cabaret’s ‘Maybe This Time’ and lesser known work like Jekyll and Hyde’s ‘Someone Like You’ (in which she starred at the Union) with an equal gusto, and a nicely restrained (and beautifully arranged ) wander through Blood Brothers’ ‘Easy Terms’ brings a lovely inquisitive quality to the storytelling, reflecting Alberto’s roots as a singer-songwriter of no little quality.

Review: The Verb, ‘To Love’, Old Red Lion

“The things we make ourselves believe
The things we make believe we feel”

For the last two years, Aria Entertainment’s From Page 2 Stage season has been a showcase for new musical theatre writing, providing opportunities for shows like The Route To Happiness and The Return of the Soldier and also allowing writers to get feedback on their work. At the first festival in 2013, writer and composer Andy Collyer noted the positive reception one of his songs – ‘Me and my Chlorophytum’ – received and filing that information away, later returned to it to develop a full piece of musical theatre, The Verb, ‘To Love’, directed here by Jonathan O'Boyle.

Taking the form of a song cycle, almost entirely sung-through, Collyer explores the romantic affairs of a 40-something guy called Simon. Reeling from the end of a 23 year relationship, his attention soon lands on a young colleague Ben who is showing a keen interest and we follow them from the heady days of lustful flirtations through changing Facebook statuses, getting a flat and a dog and other such joys of a long-term relationship to the more challenging times of mistrust, selfishness and Facebook stalking.