Author Archives: Louise Penn

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan.

The Mix: a bowl full of London theatre buzz

Welcome to a new monthly feature on loureviews.blog – this is The Mix, where I’ll pull out some items of London theatre news, big and small, which have caught my eye.

Bar and box office of Above The Stag
Bar and box office of Above The Stag

A is for Above the Stag. This sparkling and vibrant venue, once found behind the Victoria Palace Theatre, is now in residence in Vauxhall, and is fast building its reputation as one of the finest LGBT+ theatres. In a main house and a studio, it presents a variety of shows – Grindr the Opera, and [title of show]: a musical about musicals, are next in line. To find out more, to sign up to the newsletter, or to book tickets to this valuable space, go to http://www.abovethestag.com/vxl/.

Auditorium, Bread and Roses Theatre
Auditorium, Bread and Roses Theatre

B is for Bread and Roses. This innovative and award-winning pub theatre in Clapham High Street recently showcased The Vagina Monologues and seems particularly supportive of new writers, women writers, and fringe comedy. As a relatively new venue the space is actively seeking donations and support to allow it to grow – for more, and for a taste of its upcoming productions, including Adam Gwan’s new musical Ordinary Days, which runs from 5th-16th March, go to https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/.

A Chichester Festival transfer, Caroline or Change
A Chichester Festival transfer, Caroline or Change

C is for Chichester. The festival, while taking place some miles outside the capital, has transferred a number of hit shows in over the past few years including Fiddler on the Roof, Caroline or Change, Half a Sixpence, King Lear, and Guys and Dolls. Although we are still waiting for news of the mooted transfer of the Noel Gay/Stephen Fry musical Me and My Girl, keep your eyes on this year’s big production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma, which may be London-bound in due course.

Pinter Seven, which closes this month
Pinter Seven, which closes this month

D is for Departures. All good things must come to an end, and we say goodbye to several shows this month, including the English National Opera’s La Boheme on the 22nd, Pinter Seven at the Harold Pinter Theatre on the 23rd, True West at the Vaudeville Theatre on the 23rd, Nine Night at the Trafalgar Studios on the 23rd, the glorious Songs for Nobodies at the Ambassadors on the 23rd, and The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum on the 24th.

Th' Importance of Bein' Earnest at th' Drayton Arms
Th’ Importance of Bein’ Earnest at th’ Drayton Arms

E is for Earnest. As an honorary Yorkshire girl, having lived there for a decade, I’m sad to miss out on Th’ Importance of Bein’ Earnest at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road. It runs to the 23rd February and promises “Oscar Wilde meets Shameless” on a Yorkshire council estate, with no afternoon tea or starched collars in sight. For more information, go to https://www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk/the-importance-of-being-earnest.

Bernadette Peters, who appears at the Lyceum this summer
Bernadette Peters, who appears at the Lyceum this summer

F is for Fabulous. Three divas are coming to town to perform their shows, and I’m going to put them all together here. On 18th March, Liza Pullman, formerly one third of Fascinating Aida, sings Streisand at the Lyric Theatre, following a run at The Other Palace. You can purchase tickets at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/liza-pulman-sings-streisand/ and “give yourself reasons to smile this Spring”.

Patti LuPone, recently seen as Joanne in the reimagined Company, is in conversation at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on 10th March, launching a new series of events entitled Sunday Encounters. More at https://trh.co.uk/whatson/patti-lupone-in-conversation-with-edward-seckerson/.

Finally, the legendary Tony award-winner Bernadette Peters is back in town, at the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden, and her show takes place on the 10th June, as part of a UK tour. I’ll be covering this event in the summer, and if you want to be there too, you can find more details and book tickets at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/bernadette-peters/lyceum-theatre/.

Adjoa Andoh in Richard II
Adjoa Andoh in Richard II

G is for the Globe, specifically the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where a new production of Richard II opens on the 22nd February. Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton direct the first ever company of women of colour in a Shakespeare play on a major UK stage, in a production which has the Windrush scandal and the Brexit crisis very much in mind. This sounds as if it will be an important production of a play which does lend itself to reinterpretation. For more information, go to https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on-2018/richard-ii.

John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat
John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat

H is for Harvey. There’s no getting over the fact that London will play host to two plays using the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein as inspiration this year. Currently running at the Playground Theatre on Latimer Road, Harvey is the brainchild (literally, given it is set in Weinstein’s head) of playwright-performer Steven Berkoff, who shows no signs of mellowing in his ninth decade. More information and booking at https://theplaygroundtheatre.london/events/harvey/.  Later in the year John Malkovich returns to the West End stage for the first time in more than thirty years in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, which concerns the character of one “Barney Fein”. This will run at the Garrick Theatre from 7th June to 14th September. Find out more at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/bitter-wheat/.

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son
Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son

I is for Inspiration, or lack of in this case, as not one, not two, but three productions of Githa Sowerbury’s 1912 Rutherford and Son are in production during 2019. One is up in Sheffield and currently running, one has just closed at Ealing’s Questors Theatre, and one is due in the National Theatre’s 2019-2020 season (starring Roger Allam). It’s a modern classic about generational strife in a family industry, which I last saw at the Oldham Coliseum in 1987. I’ll be at the National’s version in May – more information on that production at https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/rutherford-and-son.

Publicity for @Juliet
Publicity for @Juliet

J is for &Juliet. There’s been a lot of publicity for this musical, which comes into London towards the end of the year. Everyone knows the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, but what if Juliet survived and was able to tell her own side of the tale? In the spirit of Six, this show will utilise pop music – this time the work of Max Martin, who wrote for Britney and others – to craft and “irreverent and fun-loving” show, and it opens at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 2nd November. If you’re up North, you can catch its run in Manchester from 10th September. Find out more about the London run at http://www.shaftesburytheatre.com/shows/juliet-2/.

The King's Head Pub & Theatre
The King’s Head Pub & Theatre

K is for the King’s Head. This theatre pub in Islington goes from strength to strength, and two new musicals running in late May-early June look fun, Trump: the Musical and Boris: the Musical. If parodies of current politics are not your cup of tea, you can catch the classics, too, as there are some short pieces by Tennessee Williams running in late July and through August. For more information see https://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/.

Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran
Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran

L is for Lipstick. Lipstick: a Fairy Tale of Iran runs at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham Common, from 26th February to 24th March, as part of the ’96 Festival, celebrating queerness and theatre. Part theatre, part drag cabaret, this show fuses storytelling, vaudeville, theatre, lip-synch and “boylesque”. Nathan Riley plays Mark, Siobhan O’Kelly plays Orla. This story of “rage, redemption and weaponised whimsy” promises to be a very special event. For more, see https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/lipstick/.

A German Life, opening in April at the Bridge Theatre
A German Life, opening in April at the Bridge Theatre

M is for Maggie Smith. She’s returning to the stage for the first time in twelve years in a one-woman play, at the Bridge Theatre, this April. The new play is A German Life, based on the real life testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, who once worked for Joseph Goebbels. If you are under 25 and a member of the “Young Bridge” scheme there are some tickets available for £15. More information at https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-german-life/.

Agnes Colander, running at Jermyn Street Theatre until the 16th March
Agnes Colander, running at Jermyn Street Theatre until the 16th March

N is for Nunn, Trevor. Following an acclaimed run at the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal, Bath, Nunn’s new production of Harvey Granville Barker’s recently rediscovered play Agnes Colander has just opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre (near Piccadilly Circus) and runs until the 16th March. For more details see https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/agnes-colander/.

Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre

O is for the Orange Tree Theatre. Richmond’s smallest theatre has a mix of old and new productions, and is currently showcasing Rose Lewinstein’s new play Cougar (which I will report on later in the week), with Terence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines running through June and July. The Orange Tree could always use donations and support if you are unable to attend performances. Find out more about the theatre at https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on.

Jonathan Hyde and Ben Allen in Gently Down The Stream
Jonathan Hyde and Ben Allen in Gently Down The Stream

P is for the Park Theatre, in Finsbury Park. Martin Sherman’s new play Gently Down The Stream has its press night tonight and runs through to the 16th March. I’ll be going in early March, and am very much looking forward to this production, directed by Sean Mathias and starring Jonathan Hyde, Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey. The play follows “the remarkably moving and brilliantly funny love story of Beau, an older American pianist living in London, and Rufus, an eccentric young lawyer, celebrating those who led the way for equality, marriage and the right to dream”. More details at https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/gently-down-the-stream.

The fabulous ladies of Six - The Musical
The fabulous ladies of Six – The Musical

Q is for Queens. Six: the Musical continues its run at the Arts Theatre until January 2020. If you haven’t been yet, and you need something to whet your appetite, this article from BBC Newsbeat might get you in the mood. You can book tickets for Six at https://www.sixthemusical.com/ to see “Divorced – Beheaded – Live in Concert!”.

Publicity for Joseph at the London Palladium
Publicity for Joseph at the London Palladium

R is for Revamp. Does the world need yet another version of the Lloyd Webber-Rice pop musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? You be the judge when a brand new production lands at the London Palladium in June. More here https://www.londontheatre.co.uk/show/joseph-and-the-amazing-technicolor-dreamcoat.

Sunday Night Socials at the Union Theatre
Sunday Night Socials at the Union Theatre

S is for Sunday Night Socials. A new series of monthly concerts at the Union Theatre, near Southwark, these are being advertised as “very informal and relaxed” and will feature a whole host of West End performers over the next three months. For more information – and for details of main productions Can-Can and Othello – see http://www.uniontheatre.biz/whats_on.html.

Dear Evan Hansen, coming to the Noel Coward Theatre this year
Dear Evan Hansen, coming to the Noel Coward Theatre this year

T is for Transfers. Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre has its press night tonight, Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre on the 6th March. These transfers from old Broadway will soon be joined by a third show, Dear Evan Hansen, at the Noel Coward Theatre, for which early booking will be open at the end of this month. I visited Come from Away earlier this month and see Waitress next week.

The Vaults Festival. Via The Reviews Hub.
The Vaults Festival. Via The Reviews Hub.

U is for Underground, specifically The Vaults, beneath Waterloo Station. The Vaults Festival is currently in full swing until the 17th March, with a diverse programme of theatre, comedy, film, and late shows. You can find out more about the Festival at https://vaultfestival.com/.

Glenda Jackson in The Old Vic's #MORELOOS campaign
Glenda Jackson in The Old Vic’s #MORELOOS campaign

V is for Vic, Old. The grand old lady of The Cut is currently undergoing a refit which will improve the foyer and more importantly, the loos! In the meantime, if you’re visiting, there’s portakabins instead. I just have to share this delightful video from their Twitter account – https://twitter.com/oldvictheatre/status/1063045610570506240 – #MORELOOS!!!!

Official West End Theatre Guide image
Official West End Theatre Guide image

W is for the West End, and the Official West End Theatre Guide for the huge, the overpriced, and the spectacular shows on in the big houses – https://guides.ticketmaster.co.uk/west-end-theatre/. By all means support as and if you can, but remember there are literally thousands of places and performances in our metropolis.

Dock X at Surrey Quays

X is for is Dock X, at Surrey Quays. If you’re creating a special and unique event, this new multi-use space might be just the ticket. The industrial space lends itself to brand activations, car launches, conferences, award dinners, cultural pop ups, experiential and team building events across its vast 34,100 sq. ft reach. Perfect for creatives! More at https://venuelab.co.uk/venues/dock-x-london/.

Exterior of the Unicorn Theatre
Exterior of the Unicorn Theatre

Y is for Youth. The Unicorn Theatre, on Tooley Street, London Bridge, is dedicated to developing work for young audiences. In 70 years of children’s theatre, it also has a vibrant Schools’ Programme, workshops, and this week is running some special events for half term. Find out more at https://www.unicorntheatre.com/whatson.

Lemurs at Hanwell Zoo
Lemurs at Hanwell Zoo

Z is for Zoo. Watching and learning about animals in a caring and natural habitat is a form of theatre, whether you are in Regent’s Park, Battersea or my local little zoo at Hanwell.

If you’d like your venue, event or production to be included in next month’s round-up, let me know by emailing louise@loureviews.blog or contacting me on Twitter at @loureviewsblog.


Diane Arbus and Kader Attia (Hayward Gallery)

Earlier in the week I attended a Southbank Centre member showing of the two new exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery – Diane Arbus ‘In The Beginning’ and Kader Attia ‘The Museum of Emotion’.

Arbus has become world-renowned for her photography in the 1950s and 1960s, and there are many varied examples here, from curious babies to female impersonators, young men to old women, circus performers to commuters.

Across two galleries her work is arranged on white columns, so you can choose your own route: however, I felt this arrangement may not suit the smaller photographs which require some serious study and would benefit from a bit more space in which to observe them.

Around two thirds of the work on show has not been seen outside New York before, which makes this a valuable retrospective. A range of books showcasing Arbus’ work are available for sale.

Downstairs, across six rooms, is the multimedia work of Attia, a French artist whose work in photography, video, sculpture and repurposed objects makes comment on the state of politics and the world at large.

Whether you see the video installation of the Robespierre Tower estate, the room of African masks and Great War artifacts, the photographs of transgender subjects, or the films looking back on the 1980 Gwangju massacre in South Korea, this exhibition remains interesting.

A book and exhibition catalogue relating to Attia’s work are available.

Both exhibitions run until May 6. The Hayward Gallery is part of the Southbank Centre, and can be found on the upper level. There are cloakroom facilities plus a shop and cafe.


Chita Rivera (Cadogan Hall)

Part of the Cadogan Hall Broadway series, we were treated yesterday to a visit to London by an icon of musical royalty, Chita Rivera.

Now 86 years old, she created the roles of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, toured in Sweet Charity, and appeared in London in Bye Bye Birdie and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

Old enough to have known the likes of Bernstein, Fosse and Kander & Ebb, she performed a diverse set of numbers punctuated by stories of her road to success.

Her voice isn’t what it was – although in A Boy Like That, All That Jazz, Jacques Brel’s Carousel and a number from Kander & Ebb’s final show The Visit it comes to life with hints of the vibrancy she must have shown fifty or sixty years ago.

Head to toe in red from her earrings to high-heeled shoes, ‘Chi’ is still every inch a star, with knowing asides and dance moves.

Her set is full of lesser-known numbers from the likes of The Rink, Sweet Charity, Seventh Heaven (in which Chita sings not just the part of Fifi but also Camille and Cosette!), and Bye Bye Birdie (assisted by Tim Flavin on one song, Rosie).

Enjoyable, if only to see an original star in action – there are fewer of them by the year, but this one shows no signs of slipping into retirement just yet.

Photo credits – Laura Marie Duncan.


Friday Night is Music Night (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

Off to the Southbank Centre last night for a live broadcast on Radio 2 of the world’s longest-running orchesteral radio programme Friday Night is Music Night, introduced by Ken Bruce, with special guests Gary Wilmot, Sarah Fox, and cornet player Thomas Nielsen (winner of the Radio 2 Young Brass Soloist competition).

With a tried and tested mix of classical, opera, and musicals, this formula continues to pull in the listeners, and I enjoy seeing the show performed now and then – we last saw it in 2015.

Musical numbers performed included You’ve Got Trouble from The Music Man, Will You Remember from Maytime, Soliloquy from Carousel, Hushabye Mountain from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and It’s a Jolly Holiday from Mary Poppins.

stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall

Orchestral interludes from West Side Story, and the work of Rimsky-Korsakov, and an operatic aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka, plus cornet versions of Someone To Watch Over Me and Napoli, made this a rather special concert, with a piece for voice and solo piano (The Way You Look Tonight) being especially effective.

One or two of Bruce’s informative snippets might have been inaccurate (Peggy Wood was indeed the Mother Abbess in the film of The Sound of Music, but Margery MacKay sang for her in the role), and Wilmot might have missed a few of the lyrics of the Soliloquy, but that’s what makes live shows real.

If you want to hear this concert for yourself, you can find it on the BBCiPlayer.


Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre)

All I knew about this show on arrival was that it was a musical inspired in some way by the events on 9/11. I hadn’t heard any of the score, or seen any production photos, so it was a complete blind buy based on the success this show has had across the pond (and the fact it was available in the Get Into London Theatre promotion helped, too).

Come from Away cast. Via London Theatre.
Come from Away cast. Via London Theatre.

In the town of Gander, on the island of Newfoundland, off the shores of Canada, a small community of a few thousand people get on with the business of life. There’s a bus strike. The Mayor, who doesn’t drink, nevertheless gets all his gossip from the local pub. There’s a new reporter in town, a girl called Janice. There’s a school, a sports hall.

Then news that 6, then 11, then 20, then 30, then 38 planes are being diverted out of American airspace. A national emergency, bringing so many passengers the town’s population doubles that day. Men, women, children. A group headed for Disneyland. An Englishman headed for a conference. Wives, mothers. Christians, Jews, Muslims.

The town rises to the challenge. Shopping trips are made, food is prepared, phones are provided, clothes are donated. “There’s a candle in the window, and the kettle’s always on”, goes the refrain, and so it proves. Disputes are put aside; the hockey match space becomes a giant walk-in refrigerator. Passengers who hardly spoke to each other en route find common ground, or common emnity (the suspicion against the Muslim passengers is not glossed over).

The cast of Come From Away. Via Playbill.
The cast of Come From Away. Via Playbill.

Based on a true story, the show fleshes out some stories – the awkward romance of Nick and Diane, Hannah’s hopeless desperation in trying to find news of her firefighter son, Beverley the air captain who can’t compute the “thing I love being used as a bomb”, the two gay Kevins – and finds time for others like Ali the award-winning Muslim cook, Bob the nervous man who finds peace in the friendly environs of Gander, Bonnie who cares for the animals left on board the abandoned planes, Claude the tenacious mayor, Janice the reporter, Beulah the mother hen, the elderly Jew who has never breathed a word about his faith to anyone.

With a cast of twelve playing multiple parts, you’ll see the same actors as Newfoundlanders and refugees, as the confident and the faint of heart, and all this is realised in a simple set and just a shade of change in costume or accent. It’s a very intensive play with most actors on stage throughout, and if there were a couple of microphone drop-outs during the show, that’s nothing that can’t be easily fixed. Evoking a sense of time and place is far more important, and this is done without apparent effort, from the bar to the confines of a plane, to the schoolroom where hundreds sleep on the floor to the top of the Rock.

All the cast are exceptional and hard-working – Clive Carter (Claude), Mary Doherty (Bonnie), David Shannon (Kevin T), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J/Ali), Rachel Tucker (Beverley), Cat Shannon (Hannah), Robert Hands (Nick), Helen Hobson (Diane), Nathanael Campbell (Bob), Emma Salvo (Janice), Harry Morrison (Oz), and at the performance I saw, Chiara Baronti (Beulah).

The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein runs from Irish whimsey and humour through to sweet ballads, and evokes just the right balance of laugh out loud amusement (the bar scene, the cardiologists) and moments of emotional engagement (Prayer, Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere).

I laughed, I cried. I invested in each and every character which is a tribute to the writers, the performers, and the director Christopher Ashley. The lively band quite rightly had their own curtain call which got the audience to its feet – if they hadn’t already risen for the cast – and sent us out on a high.

Come from Away poster
Come from Away poster

And what’s a “Come From Away“? It’s anyone who comes from outside the island, but by the time we left (and thanks to the little badges we could pick up at the door), I think we could all say “I am an islander”. This is a musical with heart and soul. Running initially until September, I’d highly recommend you give it a go.

Watch the trailer for the West End production of Come From Awayhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQfLH5v4ljc.


Ian McKellen on Stage (Richmond Theatre)

It’s Ian McKellen’s 80th birthday this year, and to celebrate he’s touring around 80 theatres in the United Kingdom, starting with a run of London theatres, big and small.

Ian McKellen
Ian McKellen

Last night at Richmond Theatre was the fifth stop in the tour, following The Space/St Paul’s, the National Theatre, the Young Vic, the Rose Theatre Kingston, and the Bridge. There’s a “trunk” on to which stickers are added for each stop, so that’s how we know!

The show opens with an extract from Lord of the Rings, in which McKellen had such a triumph as Gandalf, which starts to set the scene for much of the first half, with judicious name-dropping, memories, and humour.

We hear about the theatres of Bolton, and the alderman who helped the young McKellen to engage with the footlights; of Cambridge and the audition which helped him to a scholarship via Henry V; of family, and poetry (Wordsworth and Hopkins); and of coming out as gay at 48, over 30 years after a formative experience in the dress circle watching Ivor Novello.

There’s even a snippet of the pantomime dame, before the second half of the show kicks in to pure Shakespeare, with each play considered (or dismissed) in turn, with anecdotes, readings, performance, and more. It’s a masterclass in itself, with characters on the fringes including a John Gielgud Lear “hiding from Alan Badel, and memories of past productions like the wonderful Macbeth with Judi Dench.

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth at the RSC
Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth at the RSC

No love for Measure for Measure or The Winter’s Tale, it seems, although some scenes from Richard II and Hamlet make up for it: odd, then, that the videos of McKellen’s performances in these plays remain unreleased. As for King Lear, it’s clear that book is closed, with “never, never, never again” – for those of us who saw it last year, we were fortunate indeed.

If you have a ticket on this tour, you’ll enjoy, and if last night was anything to go by, you’ll get your money’s worth, with a show that runs to nearly three hours.


Caroline, or Change (Playhouse Theatre)

poster image for Caroline or Change

The Chichester Theatre production of this accomplished musical has just announced it closes a month early to make room for the transfer of Fiddler on the Roof from the Menier, but I would recommend you take advantage of the deals and discounts now available to see Caroline, or Change, if you can.

Planned for several years, and written by Angels in America author Tony Kushner, this show was originally planned as an opera but instead grew into a stage musical, largely sung-through, composed by Jeanine Tesori (her previous show, Violet, is also in town, and I will report back on that next month).

Dujonna Gift-Simms, Ako Mitchell, Tanisha Spring, Sharon D Clarke
Dujonna Gift-Simms, Ako Mitchell, Tanisha Spring, Sharon D Clarke

Caroline (Sharon D Clarke) is a black maid who works for a rich Jewish family, the Gellmans. She is a widow with three children of her own, who live in poverty under the shadow of the Confederate Statue we see as the play opens, a symbol of the white privilege which stops the likes of Caroline and her friend Dotty (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) from getting on in life.

The opening scene proper gives a sense of the unusual: there is a singing washing-machine, a dryer, and eventually, the lady in the moon. This gives a sense of the fantastic to Caroline’s mundane day of cleaning and doing the laundry.

Me'sha Bryan and Sharon D Clarke
Me’sha Bryan and Sharon D Clarke

We are also introduced to Noah, the spoiled young man of the house (Aaron Gelkoff at this performance), who misses his dead mother, resents his cookie-cut stepmother (Lauren Ward), and enjoys sharing an illicit daily cigarette with Caroline.

Noah has a habit of leaving loose change in his pockets, and this is the “change” which is depicted in the title; he seeks attention by leaving the change for Caroline (who is allowed by Rose, the wife, to keep it), and she takes the opportunity to treat her children to the treats they would otherwise go without.

Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline or Change
Sharon D Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline or Change

Politics intrude now and then – the assassination of JFK, who was on the side of civil liberties, and a Chanukah celebration which touches on racial politics, with an argument between Mr Stopnick, Rose’s father (Teddy Kempner) and Emmie, Caroline’s growing daughter (Abiona Omonua) – but what matters is the bond between people, and the aspiration for change in the literal sense.

Noah’s father (Alastair Brookshaw) plays the clarinet and hides his grief; his parents (Vincent Pirillo and Sue Kelvin) add pointed commentary, and Noah grows to find his place in the natural order of things; still, by the ending it seems Caroline has achieved her change, set aside the memories of the sailor she lost, and found her place.

The songs are largely memoraable and vibrant – highlights would include Lot’s Wife, I Hate the Bus, and the Laundry Quintet, with the Radio girls who form a kind of chorus. Clarke is an acting and singing powerhouse, and Omonua is impressive, and all the children do well with their routines.

An informative programme (£5) gives the cultural background on the time depicted, and the genesis of the show.


Songs for Nobodies (Ambassadors Theatre)

This ninety-minute show has more than an echo of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, but is more of a one-woman showcase, as Bernadette Robinson performs as ten distinct characters during the show she has already wowed audiences with at Wilton’s Music Hall last spring.

Bernadette Robinson in Songs for Nobodies
Bernadette Robinson in Songs for Nobodies

Written by Joanna Murray-Smith especially for Robinson, and directed by Simon Phillips, this musical play lets us into five vignettes where the nobody meets the star, or has a story about them: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline (on the night her plane came down), Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas.

With only subtle changes of lighting and minimal props, Robinson not only conjures up the voices of these dead legends, but the women who are touched by them: Bea Appleton, whose marriage is crumbling and has a meeting with Garland in the ladies’ loo; Pearl Avalon, who is encouraged by Cline to become a backing singer in the shadows; Edie Delamotte, librarian, whose father was helped out of a concentration camp by Piaf; Too Junior Jones, rookie reporter, whose chat with Holiday gives her a big break; and Orla McDonagh, Irish nanny to the Onassis family on the cruise where he romanced Callas.

It’s possible that utilising Holiday as one of the stars imitated might cause a problem, but the voice is so on point the fact the imitator is a white woman doesn’t matter. And the imperceptible changes in manner, poise, and voice liberate all the women from the silences in which they linger.

Songs for Nobodies poster image

Songs for Nobodies may not have an enduring storyline, and is a much smaller show than many of the big budget musicals currently populating the West End, but it is only a limited run, to 23 February 2019, and availability is reasonable throughout.

If you are a fan of any of these immortal singers (and I love all of them) then you will want to see this. You may need to know a bit of background, but even if you don’t, the situations depicted fill in some of the gaps. And Robinson is worth the ticket price alone: she’s incredible.


Return of VAULT Festival!

Today we welcome the launch of VAULT Festival 2019, one of the largest curated arts festivals in the world; featuring the best in comedy, theatre, cabaret and immersive experiences.

Representing all of London with the best of London, more than 400 shows will head to Waterloo from 23rd January to 17th March.

Announcing their “biggest, boldest, bravest programme yet”, this exciting and diverse programme features shows from more than 2,000 artists, with 53% of work being female-led and 25% of work coming from LGBTQIA+ artists.

Starting in 2012 with only 25 shows and 7,000 attendees, VAULT Festival has become the fastest growing arts festival in the UK, hosting over 350 shows in 2018 and welcoming more than 70,000 audience members.

Participating venues include The Vaults (underneath Waterloo Station), the secret community space The Network Theatre, upstairs at the Horse & Stables pub, Granby Place, and the Travelling Through Bookshop on Lower Marsh. In addition Unit 9 on Leake Street will be home to a host of immersive experiences, and pop-up venues will complement the festival including a new craft beer bar.

VAULT Festival supports two charities this year: Child.org and Help Refugees. In addition, its partnership continues with WeAreWaterloo, supporting the local community with a range of initatives aimed at residents and under-25s. The Festival is also expanding its engagement with SURGE, a new and exciting programme of cross-arts projects, working with schools on outreach performances and workshops.

Writers are not forgotten, either, as leading theatre publisher and performing arts agent Nick Hern Books have supported a VAULT Festival New Writers Programme: an 8-week practical writing course for prospective writers of any age, culminating in a public showcase of writing for the stage in the final week of the festival.

With theatre, comedy, family fun and late events, there is something for everyone at VAULT Festival. The full programme and tickets for all shows are available at vaultfestival.com, 020 8050 9241 and in person at The Vaults box office from 5:30pm during festival opening dates. Prices vary, ticketed events from £5.


Fiddler on the Roof (Menier Chocolate Factory)

A welcome revival for Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical about a Jewish village where tradition still reigns while the world slowly and malevolently changes; specifically for the family of Tevye (Andy Nyman) who sells dairy goods to his neighbours, his wife Golde (Judy Kuhn) who he may love after 25 years, and their five daughters: Tzietel (Molly Osborne), Hodel (Harriet Bunton), Chava (Kirsty MacLaren), Shprintze (Lia Cohen) and Bielke (Lottie Casserley).

Andy Nyman as Tevye.
Andy Nyman as Tevye.

The elder three daughters are all of marriageable age, but as the children of a poor dairyman they have to rely on the local matchmaker, Yente (Louise Gold) to find them a husband their papa will approve of. But times are changing, and first one daughter, then another, and another, make their own choices, rather than letting their fates be dictated for them.

Against this background the musical comes to life in a clever use of the small space in the Menier, a big of scene setting at one end of the stage, and open floor for dancing and big musical numbers. The most well-known titles, “If I Were A Rich Man”, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, work well, but the sequence where the Russians and the Jews uneasily spar together in the local tavern is a triumph of male bravado and dance athleticism (“To Life”) which utilises the original choreography of Jerome Robbins.

Judy Kuhn, Andy Nyman and company.
Judy Kuhn, Andy Nyman and company.

Nyman, Kuhn, Osborne, Bunton and MacLaren all have their chance to shine as the story progresses, as do Joshua Gannon as Motel the tailor, Stewart Clarke as student Perchik, Matt Corner as soldier Fyedka, Dermot Canavan as Lazar Wolf the butcher, and gossipy Gold. From the sublime “Now I Have Everything” to the ridiculous “Tevye’s Dream”, the company never mis-step, and in the sequences which require a chorus effect to the songs all the cast members are shown to be gifted singers and actors.

The company of Fiddler on the Roof in rehearsal.
The company of Fiddler on the Roof in rehearsal.

Nyman’s Tevye is a pragmatic man, who thinks nothing of asking his God for help in a crafty prayer, or admonishing him if something goes wrong, and his love for his daughters finally outweighs his “Tradition”. Even with the downbeat ending, you feel there is hope for this resilent man and his family, wherever they find themselves across the globe.

Trevor Nunn directs this warm, engrossing and accomplished revival, which runs until the 9th March 2019.


Six (Arts Theatre)

In what has already been termed a triumphant return to the London stage (the current run has literally just started and has been given a year-long extension), Six comes back to the Arts Theatre with new actresses in the parts of Henry VIII’s six wives (“Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”).

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss created this show as a student production at Cambridge, and later wowed audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their mission, as stated in the programme, is not just to rehabilitate the six Queens, but to anchor their stories in the modern world, and to let the women tell their stories without being “too earnest or sincere”.

Jane, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katharine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Jane, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Catherine of Aragon, Katharine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

With a backing band of four, (“Ladies in Waiting” – Arlene McNaught, Alice Angliss, Amy Shaw, Terri De Marco), the six take their places with an opening ensemble number to confirm which is which, before entering into a contest to see who suffered the most, by telling their personal stories in catchy song.

The ensuing concert – Divorced, Beheaded, Live! – allows each Queen to come to the forefront with the others performing back-up functions; sometimes in high-energy dance format, sometimes in ballad form.

It’s hard to single out a song, or a performance. Some are stronger earworms, but some are stronger stories. The current six – Jarneia Richard-Noel, Millie O’Connell, Natalie Paris, Alexia McIntosh, Aimie Atkinson and Maiya Quansah-Breed – are all terrific, hard-working, likeable performers.

Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard. Photo by Colin Penn
Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard. Photo by Colin Penn

Catherine of Aragon’s “no way” when jettisoned to a nunnery and exile following 25 years of marriage and 5 miscarriages has the power you would expect from the woman who put up with so much for so long, shipped from her home country to marry first one brother then another when the first one died.

Anne Boleyn’s Essex girl “sorry/not sorry” is a girl power rant for the Netflix generation with liberal usage of text speak, but showing the exploited young girl underneath. History shows that Anne was playing a game with the King which led to his obsession and her imprisonment, and it is no wonder she may have got bored, used purely as a young baby farm.

Jane Seymour shows herself to be a devoted wife and mother, who doesn’t talk back, and who’s only regret is that she didn’t live to see her son (that sickly son, remember, who didn’t rule for long and was overshadowed by the sisters his father had disinherited). Jane, who had served her predecessor Queen and who stood with Henry waiting for the signal that her head had gone, freeing her to be wife number three.

Anne of Cleves, often dismissed as dull and ugly, is badass and sexy (“you said I didn’t look like my profile picture”), and happy in her riches and her freedom. She reclaims herself from being the boring and the irrelevant one and gets the measure of her horny husband.

Katharine Howard is the pop tart exploited from teenage years, with men who pursue her and “all you want to do is touch me, squeeze me, can’t get enough, see”. She was married at seventeen and dead at nineteen, her crime having been abused by opportunistic men no different than her ageing husband. Even Thomas Culpeper, who is usually thought to be her true love, is shown to have exploited her and put them both in danger.

Catherine Parr, the survivor, who writes a letter she never sends to the man she truly loves, who wishes she had not caught the eye of the King who just needs a nursemaid to end his days. The contestant who is a “Prot-est-ant”, who claims “I don’t need your love” but marries four times because life for a Tudor woman dictates it, and eventually goes like Jane, dead in childbirth with the son of the man she had to give up for Henry.

Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

The contest unravels when the Queens realise they can detach themselves from just being known as Henry’s wives, stop trying to outdo each other, and assert themselves in their own revised histories and reformation (“you can try but I’m unbreakable”), and we feel we have got to know these ladies just that little bit better.

This is a glittery, fun and feminist musical, full of puns, dance moves, and sass. Even for Tudor obsessives (and I’m one, having read and seen just about everything on the topic from straight history to television adaptation to romantic fiction) can find something new to ponder about.

And by the end, it is Henry who is invisible, as his wives re-identify themselves as Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Cathy, rather than by their proximity to the throne.

Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn
Anne Boleyn, Jane, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, Catherine Parr. Photo by Colin Penn

At just eighty minutes without an interval, this show can easily be slotted in to your theatre-going, and I’d recommend it to musical fans, to those who love their history to be a bit irreverent, and to women who want to see good stories told.

Six continues at the Arts Theatre until January 2020.


Aspects of Love (Southwark Playhouse)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s chamber piece is often overlooked alongside big hitters like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Evita, but it does include one of his finest scores, and so it is a pleasure to watch a new adaptation of this complex musical of love, direct from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester.

The majority of the cast have travelled south with this show, with the exception of Madelena Alberto, who joins as Giulietta, and Eleanor Jackson, who fulfils a number of peripheral roles throughout.

Felix Mosse and Kelly Price. Photo by Pamela Raith.
Felix Mosse and Kelly Price. Photo by Pamela Raith.

Alex (Felix Mosse), 17, sends flowers to the older actress Rose (Kelly Price), who is managed by the caring Marcel (Minal Patel). She goes away with Alex to a villa which turns out to be his uncle George’s (Jerome Pradon), who himself has a mistress in Venice (Alberto). George sees Rose in a dress his dead wife once wore and she leaves Alex for him.

She moves in, and Alex returns in a couple of years to find her installed as “Madame” at the villa. They get involved again, and George thinks Alex is best for her; she has other ideas. George goes broke, and Rose proposes. Giulietta is “best man”, and after a lingering kiss, it is implied the three live together in a menage a trois. Rose gives birth to a daughter, Jenny (Eleanor Walsh).

Then in Act Two, we have fast-forwarded a number of years, with Jenny on the brink of womanhood, Rose acting in films and having a lover, Hugo (Jason Kajdi), and George rapidly ageing. When Alex returns he finds himself attracted to Jenny, but Rose is also toying with him, and it can only end in disaster.

Finally, we go full circle to the funeral procession and wake which begins this show, marking the death of George, and Alex and Giulietta go off together, leaving Rose alone and desperate, and Jenny bereft.

Jerome Pradon and Madalena Alberto. Photo by Pamela Raith.
Jerome Pradon and Madalena Alberto. Photo by Pamela Raith.

The story, of course, is preposterous and as an advert for polygamy or polyamory, keeps things firmly in the family. The score is delicious, and beautifully performed, especially by Price, who completely nails the big number for Rose, “Anything But Lonely”, and Alberto, who shows her range in “There is More to Love” and “Hand Me The Wine and The Dice”.

Pradon convinces as the old lothario who parties with his women and then becomes frustrated with his own mortality, and his delivery of George’s big songs, “Other Pleasures” and “The First Man You Remember” (George sees his daughter in that dress and seems to slip into the past) is nicely judged, if a little forceful in places.

As Alex, Mosse acts well both as the petulant child-man and the embarrassed recipient of his young cousin’s affections, but he is the most selfish character on the page; showing no real redemption. It seems clear in his exchange with Guilietta that he will return to claim Jenny and cause more upset in due course. He’s perhaps not unlike his uncle in that, living for today, and damn us all.

Detail from the programme and poster for Aspects of Love

Walsh’s Jenny is a force of nature as a childish teenager, and a confused young woman: a role which is hard to get right. It’s a pity she has one of the worst vocal lines (“I saw what you were doing with your new Italian friend”). I’m not sure whether the line “No one said that Romeo was a monster” has gone, but if it has, I miss it just as much as the original setting for “She’d Be Far Better Off With You”, which has now become a quartet for George, Alex, Rose, and their maid (but retains the great lyric, “You’ve dined with Garbo … translated La Bo/heme”).

The set and staging is cleverly done for a small space, with lighting cues, dancing stage resets, and musical moments to evoke a change of scene and time. “Falling”, in particular, the quartet in which Rose, George, Alex and Jenny lament their emotional states, works well in the simplicity of a couple on each side of the stage, seated at the audience tables.

Those tables, incidentally, may cause problems for those of you in row B looking directly front of the stage, and be aware there are times where your view of the action will be restricted. Perhaps a lesson to be learnt in the future for the venue, although the idea of audience members getting a closer view of the action is to be applauded.

I have so many questions about a show I know so well (having seen several productions over the years):

  1. If George is Alex’s guardian, where has Alex been getting his income from and where has he been living?
  2. Why doesn’t George marry Guilietta?
  3. Why does Rose agree so quickly to go with Alex? The villa?
  4. Does Rose really love George?
  5. Does the telegram from Marcel which shortens Alex and Rose’s fortnight really come from George?
  6. If Alex suspects Rose has gone to George, why is he so surprised to see her as Madame of the house two years later?
  7. Why does George agree to marry Rose if he is broke and she has no money other than from her career?
  8. Why was Rose so quick to sleep with Alex again if she is so happy?
  9. If Rose needs to work to bring in money when does she stop to have a baby?
  10. When Alex visits Rose at the theatre in Act Two he hasn’t seen her for twelve years, but Jenny is thirteen?
  11. If George hasn’t kept track of Alex, how does Alex know about Jenny?
  12. Where has Alex been serving in the Army?
  13. If Alex stays chez George for two years, how come he never meets Guilietta?
  14. If the age of consent is 15 in France, why is everyone so protective about Jenny?
  15. Could Alex be Jenny’s father?
  16. Does George have a sexual obsession with his own daughter?
  17. Why has Rose taken up with Hugo?
  18. Why did Rose never get involved with Marcel?
  19. Why doesn’t Alex just leave if he wants to control his urges?
  20. Why doesn’t George ask him to leave if he is so worried?
  21. Once George has died, why don’t Rose and Guilietta set up home together?
  22. Why is Guilietta’s love life so complicated?
  23. Why does Alex push Rose away at the end of “Anything But Lonely”?
  24. Why does Alex end up with Guilietta?
  25. Will Alex go back for Jenny?

Nothing in the show resolves any of this, but despite the plot holes and clear confusion, this remains an excellent musical which deserves reappraisal. Welcome back, Aspects. Don’t stay away so long again.


Welcome to loureviews.blog!

About this blog

I started this blog in 2011 to report back on events I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.

It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.

About me

On a professional level I worked for many years as a librarian, and also am a published writer and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.

As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.

Social media channels

Please feel free to browse through my work on here or via my Twitter feed (@loureviewsblog). I am also developing my YouTube channel and will be launching a sibling blog to this one to concentrate on DVD releases during 2019.

Contact me

If you feel you have some news or events which would be a good fit for loureviews.blog, or would like me to review your show or product, please let me know.

You can contact me at louise@loureviews.blog and I will respond to you as soon as I can.


Matilda the Musical (Cambridge Theatre)

The set of Matilda.
The set of Matilda, by Rob Howell.

Tim Minchin’s musical version of the celebrated Roald Dahl book, Matilda, has now run in the West End since 2011, and shows no signs of slowing down, having found success in several other countries. It recently started its first UK and Ireland tour.

The School Song.
The School Song. Screengrab from YouTube.

Undoubtedly aimed at younger audiences familiar with the book, this show benefits from a dazzling and clever set by Rob Howell which adapts to a variety of locations (school, home, library, dance hall) and centres letters and books at the forefront of the young Matilda’s life. One routine to the “School Song” utilises the alphabet to move on the plot on the first day at school, and impresses.

Kitty Peterkin as Matilda. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Kitty Peterkin as Matilda. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The clever five-year-old (played at this performance by Kitty Peterkin) is a whizz with both words and figures, but is a disappointment to her self-centred parents, who refer to her as a “creep” and lavish love instead on their ridiculously stupid son, who slumps in his seat and can only speak in an occasional echo of his even more stupid father.

When Matilda is sent to the school run by the Olympic gold medallist in hammer throwing, the scary Miss Trunchbull (Hayden Tee, finding humour in the grotesque), she finds an ally in the sweet Miss Honey (Gina Beck) who sees her potential and eventually helps her to find happiness. The kindly librarian Miss Phelps (Malinda Parris) provides comedy relief and reaction to Matilda’s tall tales.

Gina Beck as Miss Honey, Hayden Tee as Miss Trunchbull. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Gina Beck as Miss Honey, Hayden Tee as Miss Trunchbull. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The songs are not really that memorable, other than “Naughty”, which is a good solo for Peterkin, and “The Smell of Rebellion”, for Tee and company. There is a sparking of magic in the second half, but I would have welcomed more of this and a lot less of Matilda’s horrendous parents (Rob Compton and Holly Dale Spencer), and Spencer’s braindead dance partner Rudolpho (Callum Train).

The child cast are excellent, with Bruce (Jacob Bland at this performance) especially due a nod. I’m glad I’ve seen this, but hand on heart I can’t put in into the top twenty of shows I have seen, and think that if you took Matilda, Trunchbull and Honey away, you wouldn’t have much left. Special effects including flashing lights, whistles, a flying student, and a fun bit of gymnastics pad out the story, which doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny (especially the resolution of the tale of the acrobat and the escapologist).

For merchandise collectors, there is a lot to help you spend the pennies, from a Matilda doll (£25) to badges, fridge magnets, bags, and t-shirts. The programme is £6, and there is a wide range of confectionery to munch as you watch.


My best decision

Last month, after a lot of stress, frustration and unhappiness, I decided to make a decision that would take me out of 25 years of secure, full-time employment and into the great unknown: I said goodbye to my well-paid job and to the profession I have been working in all my life.

I am now classing myself as a blogger and a writer, a freelance for eventual hire, and a semi-retired lady of leisure. My former industry – libraries – has changed so much since I started.

Do more with less has been the mantra across all aspects of service, while expectations continue to grow from what we now call ‘customers’ rather than ‘readers’ or ‘users’.

I cared so much about my profession. I contributed so much to it: building teams, changing strategy, giving presentations, writing articles, serving on committees.

I built a national and international reputation for being tough but fair, for wanting the very best for any service for which I was a part. I worked in every area of the business from unpacking boxes to supporting and advising executive staff.

But – my health was suffering underneath for years. I have crippling social anxiety so networking became more and more of a chore. And although I never doubted myself once as a professional, things started to change so fast and make me so worried I fell into depression, anxiety and insomnia.

I knew what it was, and I also knew that support in any business is still sorely lacking. Eventually with the help of my GP, a Harley Street psychologist, doctors at Occupational Health, my lovely husband, and the wisdom of friends who had also strugged to cope, I steadily improved, realised that getting well = getting out, and so here I am.

It’s by far the best decision I have ever made. I retain my column in Serisls Review. I am stepping up my blog. I hope to get some guest slots or invitations to write elsewhere. I’m planning a third poetry book.

In terms of eventually making money I want to get my proofreading and copyediting qualifications (so if you’re reading this and can put any work my way which I could use to build my portfolio, please contact me via the About page here).

I want to be out and about reviewing theatre, film, archive television, books. So if you would like me to engage with your work, send me an email.

Most importantly, now I don’t have a day job where I have to watch what I say, I can now be more political, more activist, more honest in how I engage on social media. Of course as an ex-librarian I retain their code of ethics, but if I want to call something out I will do it.

Being constrained and squashed was making me ill. I’m still tired, rundown, and sometimes have bad ‘crawl under the duvet’ days.

But I sleep better, and don’t have the knot in my chest or the pain in my stomach that are physical manifestations of stress. At least not as much as before.

I’m hopeful. I’m contented. I was absolutely right to say ‘so long’ to Louise the librarian and ‘hello’ to Lou, the brave.

Via Redbubble


Dreamgirls (Savoy)

Now coming to the end of a two and a bit year run, Dreamgirls remains a spectacle with numerous set and costume changes, and a killer of a first act closer in “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which at this performance Marisha Wallace delivered with devastating style and emotion. That girl can sing!

Marisha Wallace in Dreamgirls. Photo by
Brinkhoff & Mögenburg.

This story feels a bit like the real-life one of The Supremes, in which one of the trio becomes pre-eminent over the others. In Dreamgirls, Effie White, larger than life in voice and body, sings lead until pushy Curtis, their new manager, decides to trade her in personally and professionally for one of the back-up girls, Deena.

In the meantime, third girl Lorelle is content to remain as back-up and as girlfriend to married showman Jimmy Early, who has a definite Little Richard vibe going on. Over time, the rechristened Dreams cross over into the white market, leaving Effie by the wayside until the (inevitable) comeback.

Dreamgirls poster
Dreamgirls poster

There’s not a great storyline here, and that act one closing declaration of courage, love, and resilience, doesn’t make much sense when the character singing it goes into semi-retirement for seven years before act two, but there are some great musical moments and in Wallace, Brennyn Lark (Deena), Asmeret Ghebremichael (Lorelle), Joe Aaron Reid (Curtis) and Tosh Wanogha-Maud (Jimmy) there are some charismatic and talented performers on display.

Henry Krieger’s score is on point to the period, and Casey Nicholaw directs with more than an nod to Michael Bennett’s original work, given the latter’s prominent credit in the programme. There have been snips and changes evident if you’re familiar with the Jennifer Hudson/Beyonce film, but this show retains a high energy and entertainment value to the end.


Hadestown (National Theatre, Olivier)

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

When this musical opened at the National Theatre in mid-November 2018, it was generally welcomed by critics who bought into its fusion of Greek mythology and New Orleans jazz.

With years in the making, and runs in New York and Canada, this has grown from a concept album for Anaïs Mitchell (who wrote book and lyrics, and composed the score which has now been lushly rearranged for a small band by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose) to a fully-fledged musical, bound next for Broadway.

At the top of the show, the band and cast walk on to a richly detailed set, waving “hi” to the audience, who are pulled into the action by a Cab Calloway-like Hermes (played by veteran musical performer André De Shields), who turns on a toothy smile on cue and launches into the first song “On the Road to Hell” which brings the main characters to our notice.

Andre De Shields and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Andre De Shields and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Although the songs are memorable, it takes a while for the show to get going, although from the start Eva Noblezada (who was so memorable in Miss Saigon) is in terrific voice as Eurydice, a “hungry girl”, a “little songbird”, who spars with Orpheus (Reeve Carney) before getting sidetracked by the growling, Leonard Cohen-like gravel bass of Patrick Page’s Hades, “king of iron, king of steel”.

The modern setting suits some of the characters – Persephone (Amber Gray), who twenty years earlier might have been the bright and caring young girl we saw on stage in Mythic is now half-sozzled, cynical, and even though she professes to hate the underworld, she still unthinkingly takes her husband’s hand when he arrives early to take her back and to condemn the upper world to months of want and winter.

Amber Gray and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Amber Gray and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Orpheus is still a poet, but more of a student strummer, who utilises the melody of the Gods to capture the heart of Eurydice, and to thaw the heart of the stone-flinted Hades. Carney – who has played this role in all productions so far – may have a thin voice at times, but it is tuneful, and his Romeo and Juliet kind of teenage emotional attachment to the ballsy Eurydice convinces.

As well as the main principals, there are the three Fates, the chorus who cajole, condemn and curse the central couple, and a group of hardworking singer-dancers, who populate Hermes’ bar and later, Hades’ sweating workers who “build the wall”. Some reviewers have chosen to take the anthemic song against “our enemies” to reflect the foreign policy of the 45th President of the USA, but the song appears to have come first, and now presents an interesting coincidence.

Eva Noblezada,  Andre De Shields with  Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri as The Fates. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields with Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri as The Fates. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

There are moments of pure emotional pleasure – Eurydice’s final descent, Hades and Persephone remembering their first meeting in the garden, the workers trying to be free “if he can do it, so can she, if she can do it, so can we”, Hermes raising his glass to the song with the sad ending, the frenzied dancing to a drum solo, Eurydice leaving her red rose behind (“she called your name but you weren’t listening”), and Page’s depths of earth vocalising.

Andre de Shields and Patrick Page. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Andre de Shields and Patrick Page. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

After the bows, though, there’s a song “for Orpheus, and all of us”, which is quiet, and sad, and yet uplifting. This is in stark contrast to the spectacle of the triple revolve and the pulsing music which has gone before, and works perfectly.


The Tragedy of King Richard The Second (Almeida Theatre)

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Simon Russell Beale as Richard. Photo by Marc Brenner.

This bold and taut new production of the Shakespeare classic is currently running at the Almeida in Islington, and takes inspiration both from the political landscape and playground games where one child comes out the conqueror.

In a cast of eight, Simon Russell Beale adds another major character from the Bard to his portfolio, having previously triumphed as Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Prospero, Richard III and Lear. During the show he has water, soil and blood thrown at him, and becomes a pitiful figure in his grief and broken arrogance.

This production is visceral, intimate and intense. The killing of traitorous courtiers is shocking in its speed, leaving the blood literally running down the walls of the sparse plasterboard box which serves as the set. The gardeners who tend Richard’s prison garden turn on him with buckets of earth raining on his head, leaving the king literally lying in the filth that represents how low his star has fallen.

There are numerous character changes with such a small cast – Saskia Reeves, for example, moves from banished Mowbray to cunning sycophant to pleading Duchess. Leo Bill, as Bolingbroke, made me think briefly of David Troughton in the same role for the RSC close to two decades ago: another modern dress production with a weak and piteous Richard, crushed by vanity and ambition, bettered by a strong and centred usurper.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Martins Imhangbe, Leo Bill, Simon Russell Beale, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Some textual changes mean the lines within the prison are repeated at both ends of this 1 hour and 40 minute production, and a bold decision is taken to end with the now King Henry’s Holy Land speech dissolving into the giggles the school bully might express after tormenting his victims.

With the cast dressed in casual clothes, the only props the crown of the king and the buckets utilised to drench various characters, the focus is very much on the game of politics, monarchy, and dominance. Joe Hill-Gibbins directs a tight piece which might not always hit the mark, but is never less than interesting.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Simon Russell Beale as the King, and the cast. Photo by Marc Brenner.

To compare Beale’s Richard with others I have seen is instructive – David Tennant was full of pomp and ceremony, Samuel West a lost and petulant little boy. Beale is a bit of both, and his verse speaking is head and shoulders above some of his colleagues here (Joseph Mydell’s John of Gaunt was particularly disappointing in his well-known speech, but yet still gained sympathy is his time of death, pleading for the legacy of his banished son).

This may not be a production I rave about for years, but it is definitely worth a look, and if your pockets don’t stretch to the (admittedly reasonable) Almeida prices, this production shows in NT Live soon.


Sleeping Beauty (Questors, Ealing)

The traditional Christmas pantomime comes to life at the Questors with a sweet princess, a dotty dame in the personage of the Queen, and a hissable villainess as the green witch Caraboose causes havoc.

The formula of tradition – boos, “it’s behind you”, singalongs, and an eclectic and well-curated set of songs – works well.

The children in the cast are a talented bunch and in the principals, a nod needs to be given to old hand Howard Shepherdson as the Queen, Russell Fleet as a magnificent bad girl, and Rory Hobson as the Buttons-like Billy, who leads the audience in song with the old tongue-twisting coffee pot number.

There’s a hint of blue for the grown-ups, a nod to big ticket musicals (the whole castle rises up against the threat to their princess with ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ from Les Mis, and Aurora greets her prince Orlando with Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’), and tributes to variety we’ve lost – the show opens with Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’.

Once again this hardworking amateur company have provided the goods for a fun and reasonably priced family show.


1920s film musical reviews

My I L<3ve Musicals! list on Letterboxd.

Applause (1929)

‘Applause’, starring a young Helen Morgan made up to look like a washed up burlesque star, is about a singer, Kitty Darling, who has a lowlife husband and a daughter hidden away in a convent. Things change when the money runs out and the daughter is recalled from her safe and cosy world.

From the first scenes of large legged chorus girls wearily high kicking before slavering customers, to the scenes in the railway station where young April Darling sends her sailor lover away so she can bump and grind to save the family pride, ‘Applause’ is never anything other than engrossing.

But the acting honours go to Morgan, who is simply wonderful and heartbreaking. The ending, where she lies dying in her dressing room after overdosing on sleeping tablets, while April and her lover plan an escape for the three of them, is powerful and shocking. A hard hitting early talkie which you’ll remember for a long time.

The Big Revue (1929)

The six-year old Judy Garland making her debut on camera with her sisters (‘The Gumm Sisters’) is just one of the acts on show in this film, which showcases a few juvenile musical performers. She displays star quality even in this one number, which makes The Big Revue worth watching. I just love stumbling across these historical nuggets!

Broadway (1929)

An early backstage musical with wisecracking girls, a choreographer ‘with personality’, a gangster producer, a murder, and sweet little Billie (Merna Kennedy).

Brought to the screen from the stage show, this includes Paul Porcasi reprising his role as the nightclub owner Nick, and survives in both silent and talkie versions.

Director Paul Fejos displays an early affinity for the medium, with interesting camera shots and a few sequences which experiment with sound.

The musical numbers are sound enough, although Glenn Tryon is a bit, well, trying when he isn’t singing. Kennedy and Evelyn Brent go well enough, and the chorus line are decent, but the plot is confused and doesn’t really lift itself from the mundane.

The opening credits are unusual as the giant Devil laughs and stomps around the theatres and clubs of the great White Way. Men of power are corrupt and without morals, and the ambitious girls survive on a smile and the attention of a string of sugar daddies.

There’s also a Technicolor sequence, but it is in poor condition and by this time every other film seemed to have a similar showcase to keep the interest.

I liked this one, and the acting isn’t bad, while the pre-Code naughtiness pokes through here and there.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

This was the first big musical of the talkie era, in the days when musical numbers were still performed live rather than to playback, and before camera booths could allow the same kind of movement which existed before 1927, and before microphones could be small enough and portable enough to catch everyone’s voices.

Bessie Love (1898-1986), who was a marvellous actress still appearing in character parts fifty years later, and Anita Page (1910-2008). a pretty, pouty cutie who appeared to have the same slight eye problem that also afflicted Norma Shearer, are the leading ladies alongside the debonair Charles King (1886-1944), who despite his singing talents was finished in films and back on the stage by 1930.

The songs are by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and you’ll recognise a couple of them from the later homage to the silent era, Singin’ in the Rain. They’re sparkling and well-performed, and if the bits in-between are a bit forced, and the plot is next to nothing, there’s lots of pre-Code fun including shots of the girls in their underwear, and a few naughty nods.

I like a lot of the early musical features and revues from 1929 into the early 30s, and this is one of the best, gaining itself a Best Picture win because of the way it revolutionised the industry, and to us nine decades on, we can see that the early talkies, despite some limitations, were not the clunky disasters which were parodied mercilessly in later years.

Broadway Scandals (1929)

Not actually ‘watched’ as this film is sadly lost, but thanks to the fact its soundtrack was done on Vitaphone discs, that aspect survives, and with a musical, of course the sound is more than half of the magic.

I can’t rate it, however, as it isn’t the complete thing. It sounds like a fairly bog standard revue of the period with diverting enough tunes.

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directly lifted from their stage show, this was the first film appearance of the Marx Brothers, at this point a quartet with Groucho, Chico and Harpo being joined by Zeppo, and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont.

As this was made in 1929 it is undoubtedly creaky, but as a new screen team the boys definitely have their personalities sketched out and Groucho and Harpo in particular are great fun.

The Desert Song (1929)

This is a review based on seeing roughly half of this early talkie, a musical starring John Boles, Carlotta King and Louise Fazenda. The story within this operetta is around ‘The Red Shadow’, an outlaw who is also a quiet and unassuming chap when he’s out of his mask.

The songs are superb but their staging is rather static, filmed with one facing camera and microphones which are rather obviously placed – many actors talk to the spaces the microphones are in rather than to their peers on the screen!

‘The Desert Song’ duet is one highlight, ‘One Alone’ is another. And those musical sequences can easily be viewed online, even if the film in toto is harder to find.

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

Viewing the censored version on the Mill Creek Classic Musicals set, which has some cuts for taste and decency, and no Technicolor sequence.

The glorious Mary Eaton (1901-1948, of the ‘Seven Little Eatons’, five of which were vaudeville performers from childhood) is the lead in the rags to riches story of Gloria Hughes, who progresses from the counter of a sheet music store to the Ziegfeld Follies. She is a great little hoofer with a nice voice, and she’s a cute little blonde chorine into the bargain.

There’s a nothing story about her predatory dancing partner, Danny Miller (Dan Healy, 1888-1969, another Follies veteran), who wants her body and soul, enough to agree to a contract, but of course there’s better pickings for her out there. It was the crowning glory of any girl performer to join the Follies in the 10s and 20s, and the final third of this film is a pretty good record of what these shows involved (‘personally supervised by Ziegfeld’).

You’ll spot some familiar faces if you’re quick, including Johnny Weissmuller, Irving Berlin, Helen Morgan, and Mrs Ziegfeld, Billie Burke, but the lion’s share of the show is given to Eddie Cantor, whose comedy was popular enough to keep him in stardom on stage and screen well into the 1930s, and remembered with enough affection for a film to be made about his life in 1953. It might be hard to understand his appeal now, but in 1929 he was a huge attraction.

This film was fully restored by UCLA some years ago, with the censored pre-Code bits reinstated, and the finale put back to its original two-strip Technicolor state, but it remains unavailable, while these flat public domain prints can be found on the Internet Archive, YouTube, and budget sets like Classic Musicals.

Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

Lost except for ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ and the finale, this is a difficult film to review, but from what’s available the musical sequences were sumptuous. It’s a moot point whether the rest of the film would stand up today.

Happy Days (1929)

The most disappointing of the anthology shows put out by the major studios at the dawn of talking pictures, and the birth of the movie musical.

This entry into the genre comes from Fox (not yet ‘Twentieth Century Fox’), showcasing a roster of stars including Will Rogers, Charles Farrell, Marjorie White, El Brendel, George Jessel, Dixie Lee (the first Mrs Bing Crosby), Janet Gaynor, and Edmund Lowe.

Its notability is mainly from being the first feature film to be shown in a widescreen process (these prints are now lost), but even at 80 minutes it tends to drag, although there are a couple of musical highlights (White’s ‘I’m On A Diet Of Love’, Lee’s ‘Crazy Feet’, the minstrel finale of ‘Mona’).

The ill-fated White, killed in a car crash in the mid-1930s, is a sparkling delight, but you might struggle to put names to some of the ‘stars’ on show here, and even with a paper-thin plot this film doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m being generous giving it a three-star score because I am a sucker for musical revues, but you might not be so accommodating.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

Admittedly slow-paced and dated, there is a certain charm to this film that makes it very enjoyable.

I particularly liked the novelty acts and comedy routines – Bessie Love, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton’s Egyptian lady.

And the Gilbert/Shearer Romeo and Juliet section is worth sitting through the rest for anyway (despite its washed out colour, which oddly looked better in the little snippet showed in When The Lion Roars).

I can’t say I was disappointed with any of it – you get mind-boggling acrobats, you get weedy voiced Marion Davies, you get Jack Benny playing his violin and Conrad Nagel as smooth master of ceremonies, and Charles King singing that hideous song about mothers, and Ukelele Ike, well, playing a ukelele, and Joan Crawford’s ungainly dancing … it’s just a real treat, and nice to see from a technical point of view that the sound isn’t bad at all and despite its advanced age it is still watchable.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer has crossed into popular culture as the film which finally killed off the silent screen, and it was the first film to include musical moments as part of the plot.

Your view on this film will solely depend on your liking, or not, of star Al Jolson. If you find him unbearable, you might well find this film a difficult watch; on the other hand, if you enjoy his brand of humour and song, this might have some moments you will like.

The silent drama which surrounds Jolson’s excursions into song seems a little laboured, although Eugenie Besserer is touching as his mother, and that’s the first Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, as the Cantor.

Perhaps the best moment in this piece of cinema history is Jolson’s break into ‘talking’ before his song. The ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ has passed into folklore.

The Love Parade (1929)

I love Maurice Chevalier and his films with naughty Jeanette Macdonald just sparked and sparkled.

This early Lubitsch talkie is a musical and if the songs are not top notch, and if the plot is a bit silly (she is the Queen of some mythical Kingdom, he is a randy and disgraced French courtier), then no matter.

Much has been made of the gender politics where she has to relinquish power to her mate – but she does it in the same way Mary Pickford’s Kate did in The Taming of the Shrew.

Macdonald is a revelation here if you have only ever seen her in her teamings with her later singing sweetheart pairing with Nelson Eddy (although those films were sweet and romantic).

With Chevalier the sparring is sexy and resolutely Pre-Code – they make a fine pair and they fizz under their director’s firm touch.

A Plantation Act (1926)

A valuable record of the minstrel act which made Al Jolson famous.

Blackface was the first form of entertainment that could be described as typically American, and became the most popular art form during the 1840s. The songs and dances included may have attempted to be authentically black, but it was the use of spirituals (such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) that became more prevalent in later years. There were also influences from other traditions such as the circus.

Jolson was undoubtedly the most famous blackface performer of the early 20th century, and well beyond the mid-point of the century minstrel shows commanded huge audiences. I can recall seeing the Black and White Minstrels on television as a child in the 1970s.

It is perhaps worth noting as well that even African-American performers became minstrels, in many cases as a first route into showbusiness.

So, minstrel shows and blackface performance is historical fact and important to the understanding of the evolution of showbusiness, music and live stage routines.

This short presents Jolson performing three of his most enduring numbers, including “April Showers” (which I will always associate with my grandad, who used to sing it). His character is the predicatable happy slave worker, content with his lot, which although it makes for uncomfortable viewing today, was nothing unusual at the time.

Viewing this as an example of early talkie entertainment, it is fairly static in its presentation, but the Vitaphone sound disc is clear, and Jolson puts his songs across well. There’s an attempt to make a farm/plantation setting believable, with strategically placed chickens and a barn, and the print available is tinted.

Hard to rate, but it isn’t awful, and it isn’t outstanding. Rating against other Vitaphone shorts of the period it is average.

Red Hot Rhythm (1929)

This film is lost so I am commenting purely on the one clip that is available, a Multicolor number featuring either Alan Hale or James Clemmons (no one seems really sure), a line of flame-haired dancers, an orchestra, and some fiery effects. The dancing is somewhat hyperactive and the song (the title song) is catchy.

Photoplay back in 1929 said the colour sequences and dance numbers were the only thing of importance about this. Thanks to Vivian Duncan of the Duncan Sisters this – very low quality – clip has been saved, but director Leo McCarey thought this was one of his worst films.

Rio Rita (1929)

Bebe Daniels, with a ridiculous accent and a trilling voice to rival Jeanette MacDonald, is Rita, being romanced by mysterious gringo John Boles. Their operetta duets are fairly pretty and Bebe gets to wear some good costumes.

In another storyline interwoven with that of Rita are Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (with little Dorothy Lee) in a comic divorce-based plot. Woolsey is the wise-cracking cigar-chomper with the glasses, Wheeler the little guy with the high voice and a nice line in song ‘n dance.

Rio Rita is a fun early musical with primitive Technicolor bits and one Berkeley-esque overhead shot with the frilly girlies doing their thing round Wheeler. Dorothy Lee’s voice reminded me of Helen Kane (the lady who introduced I Wanna Be Loved By You before Marilyn got her hands on it).

My favourite bit music-wise is the catchy ‘Sweetheart, We Need Each Other’; otherwise the invisible girl only seen by the boys after quaffing some seriously strong plonk is a really funny bit.

And I did like the fact that for 1929 this wasn’t as primitive as other early talkies I’ve seen. Good stuff (and an invaluable record of a Ziegfeld show of course).

Sally (1929)

Originally filmed in 2-strip Technicolor, this film now survives as a mainly black and white print with some colour footage intact. This rags to riches story (Sally starts from an orphanage and ends up with her own show on Broadway) stars Marilyn Miller – little seen and perhaps only known to film buffs because of Judy Garland’s impersonation of her in ‘Till The Clouds Roll By’. Miller was a beautiful and talented artist, as ‘Sally’ proves.

Supporting her is a very young Joe E Brown (best known as Captain Andy in the third film version of Show Boat) who is a lot of fun, and Alexander Gray, who like many other leading men of the early talkies is a bit of a stuffed shirt. You’ll also spot the Keystone Kops’ Ford Sterling as ‘Pops’.

‘Sally’ is a hugely enjoyable early talkie. The colour sequence is lovely and bright – it is a pity that we lose the impact from the rest of the film. The songs are good and Miss Miller is a treat to watch.

Show Boat (1929)

The first film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, which had premiered on stage in 1927, from the Edna Ferber novel published a year before.

What remains of this film (and it is sadly incomplete) is a part-talkie with a prologue of songs from the original show (including Helen Morgan singing ‘Bill’ – she would get to play Julie in the 1936 film). I know I have seen the ‘Hey Feller’ segment with picture as well as sound before, but this version shown on TCM retains an ‘overture’ title card to accompany the songs.

The first sound segment begins after around half an hour and centres on Gaylord and Magnolia acting on stage together, then planning to marry, and eloping. Laura La Plante is far too mannered as Magnolia – although this is not as noticeable in the silent sequences – I much prefer Irene Dunne’s playful take on the character, or Kathryn Grayson’s haughty naivete, while Joseph Schildkraut is a little bit stiff with his Germanic accent as Gay, lacking the charm of either Allan Jones or Howard Keel.

The second sound segment is after Gay loses their money on an expensive horse and starts to ridicule Magnolia for wanting to sing, but this is where the track has been lost, so we get subtitles, and it doesn’t really work to paper over the cracks.

Emily Fitzroy is a priceless Parthy (she can be comic, cruel, and tragic, often at the same time), and Alma Rubens does well as Julie (although the racial storyline is completely removed, and she is fired from the Cotton Blossom simply for being too fond of the infant Magnolia, who – it is strongly hinted – might be her child).

Of the songs in the musical, we hear ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Goodbye My Lady Love’ as background music, but there are no songs as such (in the original print there were five songs, but not in the same context as in the stage show). Joe and Queenie, in this surviving version, are purely peripheral, and unlike any other version, we lose Captain Andy quite early on, during the raging storm in which Magnolia gives birth to Kim. No ‘After The Ball’ reunion for father and daughter here.

Interestingly this is the only one of the films which includes Hetty the whorehouse madam who is the Belle Watling to Gay’s Rhett Butler (he really is a river rat, and a cheat in all senses as well as a gambler), and this is how Julie comes back into the story, not as a lounge singer missing her man. There is also no reunion for Gay and his daughter Kim, so ultimately this film is more downbeat than the others.

Because it is no longer a musical in its surviving form (it kills the scene where Magnolia sings ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ towards the end to see her sing it but not hear it!), I cannot give it a higher score, but the differences in storyline, some excellent performances, and that inclusion of Morgan’s song in the prologue, nudge it up just a tad, and TCM’s attempt to salvage lost sound sequences is laudable.

Show of Shows (1929)

Some marvellous musical numbers jostle with low comedy (MC Frank Fay is an acquired taste) and snatches of high drama (John Barrymore as Richard III).

This was the Warner Brothers entry into the revue anthology films of the early days of talking pictures, showcasing most of their stars – Mary Astor, Richard Barthelmess, Monte Blue, Hobart Bosworth, Chester Conklin, Lupino Lane, Myrna Loy, Chester Morris, Rin Tin Tin, Ben Turpin, and Loretta Young.

Enjoyable, even if it is now a shadow of what it was (it was originally presented in colour), it only survives from a black and white copy for television.

Splinters (1929)

Fun army revue film which, despite ageing sound and worn-out visuals, still manages to be entertaining. It is based on the stage revue of the same name, and was one of the first sound films to be released in Britain.

Nelson Keys and Sydney Howard star, Jack Raymond directs and Herbert Wilcox produces. The musical numbers have survived in better condition than the scenes around them.

Sunny Side Up (1929)

One of the early talkie musicals, this one teams silent sweethearts Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, and gives them both the chance to share their questionable musical gifts.

This film shouldn’t work at all, but Gaynor has charm, and Farrell is watchable, and there are other compensations including the sparky Marjorie White (who should have had a long and fruitful career, but sadly died early, in 1935).

Recently given a lavish restoration, this musical sends its audience away humming the tunes, and in between has made them laugh and forget their troubles, just a bit. Why ask for more?

Syncopation (1929)

Who knows now there was a third Bennett sister who was born between Constance and Joan? But there was, and Barbara Bennett plays the female lead here, Flo.

It is fairly clear why her screen career didn’t endure, and sadly her personal life was no better and her life ended by suicide in 1958.

Alrhough the perennial impersonator of Hitler, Bobby Watson, plays Bennett’s nice as pie husband, your eye will get drawn to Morton Downey’s crooning and to the cutie who plays Peggy: that’s the bubbly Dorothy Lee, who found fame with Wheeler and Woolsey.

Word has it that Bert Wheeler saw Syncopation and looked all over town for Dottie, knowing she was just right for his sweet and silly musical comedy romance schtick. You can see here what Wheeler saw in her.

Ian Hunter is the impresario who offers Flo and Benny a break: he’s always a bit stiff, but has his english charm to pull him through.

Director Bert Glennon became a cinematographer for the likes of John Ford, and this film certainly looks good, even if it is stilted by the technical limitations of the time.

“Do Do Something” is the musical highlight of this film, which was RKO’s first musical, while Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are top-billed as the band.

Trivia note: Watson is the diction coach tormented by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

 


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