Author Archives: Louise Penn

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan.

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.

 


Plays and musicals coming up on loureviews in 2019

2019 looks as if it will be another great year for theatre productions!

Here are some I am looking forward to reporting back on:

Musicals

Plays

What are your choices?

 


The Snowman Experience (Hyde Park Winter Wonderland)

In honour of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Raymond Briggs book of The Snowman, this new “experience” has been created by Backyard Cinema.  It claims to be a fully immersive experience in which fans of both book and the 1982 television film can enjoy the story in a “3-D” setting, as “if you are flying with the Snowman”.  In short, it claims something special: but is it?

The attraction begins with the now obligatory photographs which you can buy later in the gift shop.  Then to a waiting area where a trailer promises great things ahead, before you are ushered into a screening room to watch the first part of the film.

This area is dressed with sets of both the living room and the kitchen, plus windows leading to the outside.  A snowball hits the kitchen window in virtual form when the little boy throws it. The Christmas tree lights and the TV come on and off in synch with what we see on the screen.  When the Snowman turns on the hot tap, steam comes out of the one on the set.

But sadly no magic feeling when the Snowman comes to life at midnight, other than the spotlighting of a grandfather clock.

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Then to room two, which you reach through a forest of branches and crunchy ground, to stand and watch the bike ride and the  Walking in the Air flying sequence.  At the point the Snowman and the boy take off, the 4:3 ratio film is zoomed in and stretched to widescreen, and I’m sorry to say the quality suffered, spoiling many of the sequences such as the man with the bottle, and the appearance of the whale.

Finally, the North Pole party is viewed (back to original ratio, happily) in a set dressed with a party table, lights, and a brief appearance of the Snowman himself.

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This experience is an interesting idea, but to me it was a three-star experience showcasing a five-star film.  The power is in Briggs’s story and how it was adapted for the small screen.  That does come across – just – but the extras just aren’t magical or special enough for me, and I left a little disappointed.  Immersive experiences are thriving in the theatre and this needs to up its game to compete with them.

In the gift shop the best value items are a small Snowman for £9, one of the photos from the start for £10 (or four for £25), and small badge pins.  You can splash out on a beautiful Stieff Snowman for £69, or a large cuddly version for £26.  Or if you would like the anniversary editions of the book or film, these are here too.

Tickets for The Snowman Experience are £13, and the experience takes 45 minutes to complete, with shows starting every 20 minutes.  Entry to Winter Wonderland itself is free.

 


The Human League (Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith)

Rounding off the year with a second visit to see the League, following Kew the Music in the summer, this time at the venue many still call the Hammersmith Odeon.

With songs from nine of their ten studio albums represented, plus the ever-present Together in Electric Dreams, this concert again presented 90 minutes of slick nostalgic pop perfection.

There have been slight grumbles this year about the pricing of the tour. The last time the Human League visited London outside of festivals and outdoor shows was in 2016 at the Royal Festival Hall and that was at half the price.

We opted to pay the premium rate of £95 plus £12 booking fee. Those seats gave a good close view of the band, but the intricate block and video projection set must have had a bigger wow factor from the £55 tickets further back or up in the circle.

The Red tour – it is unclear why it is so called, or why the red-themed programme contains studio photos from several years ago – is not promoting any new album. The last new recordings were on Credo in 2010, and the setlist continues to retain the crowd-pleasers from Dare plus other well-known songs.

This said, it is always a pleasure to see Philip Oakey who retains his androgynous attractiveness and rangy baritone, and to experience the electropop band and familiar singing/dancing back-up from his collaborators of thirty-eight years, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.

The League know their fans and provide a good night’s entertainment. We would all love to see them produce some new material as a mature and evolving act rather than an 80s nostalgia band, but this is looking less and less likely.

Perhaps we should just celebrate Phil and his girls who remain comfortable in each other’s company, evoking memories in all of us of those years gone by.

The Human League were supported at this show by Midge Ure’s Electronica, who provided an accomplished opener including Vienna, Fade to Grey and Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, which finally got the crowd to their feet.

The setlist for the Hammersmith show: from Reproduction: Being Boiled; from Dare: Sound of the Crowd, Things That Dreams Are Made Of, Open Your Heart, Love Action, Seconds, Don’t You Want Me; from Hysteria: The Lebanon, Louise; from Crash: Human; from Romantic: Heart Like a Wheel; from Octopus: One Man in My Heart, Tell Me When; from Secrets: All I Ever Wanted; from Credo: Night People. Plus non-album songs: Mirror Man, (Keep Feeling) Fascination, Behind the Mask, and the Moroder-Oakey track Together in Electric Dreams.

All photos by Louise Penn.


The Height of the Storm (Wyndham’s)

Florian Zeller’s play The Father (presented, as here, in Christopher Hampton’s translation), addressed the issue of an old man, Andre, suffering from dementia, and the efforts of his daughter Anne to keep the situation as normal as possible.

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Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce

In The Height of the Storm, we again have a central character called Andre with a daughter called Anne.  He (played with sensitivity and flashes of power by Jonathan Pryce) is first encountered looking out of the kitchen window, the night after a storm, and we feel there is a loss pervading the house, somewhere, as Anne (Amanda Drew) talks of estate agents, managing alone, and flowers.

We are therefore somewhat wrongfooted at the appearance of Madeleine (a matter-of-fact Eileen Atkins, the centre of this home), wife to Andre and mother to Anne and to Elise (Anna Madeley), who joins her after a shopping expedition, leading to a flash of exposition about mushrooms, meals, and family togetherness.

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Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, and Anna Madeley

Whether we are seeing what is real, or whether one, or both, of the parents have died, we are never quite sure.  Some scenes seem to be running in Andre’s confusion where he imagines his wife has only gone to her vegetable patch while their daughters are grieving for her loss; other times he is a frustrated observer at his own memorial rites.

What is certain is the cornerstone of this half-a-century of marriage, into which even the interpolation of “The Woman” is ultimately meaningless; whether she is a lost love and mother of an unknown child, or whether she is a well-meaning representative of a care home, we are never sure, and even her name becomes mangled in a sequence of similar appellations.

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Jonathan Pryce

Pryce evokes the coming on of Alzheimer’s convincingly, from the stares of fear, the twitching, the repeated gestures, the angry outbursts, the confusion, and the ever-brief glimpses of a fragile lucidity.  Atkins, pursed-lipped and resigned, is the carer and the force to which he clings, and to which her daughters return, even when their presence is resented (the moment she angrily dismisses Anne with the f word is genuinely shocking, and funny).

As in The Father, there is a man who might be one thing, and might be another, and there is an uncomfortable and briefly threatening scene where we can taste the fear in the old man’s gait, and want nothing more than to reassure him that all is well.  Drew – who played Anne in The Father when I watched it – is very good as the elder child who tries to assume control of a situation she cannot understand any more than we can; and Madeley hovers on the sidelines, helpless to intervene or come to terms with her loss.

The last scene, to me, felt very final, as if these ghosts remained bonded in the house they had created, neither really knowing which one wasn’t there any more: perhaps Madeleine’s anecdote about the hotel was the fact no-one wanted to discuss?  What was really on the card with the flowers, and who dropped it?

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Anyone who has lost someone close will want to see this, and will be intensely moved by the writing and the performances.  Jonathan Kent directs, Anthony Ward designs (and the set brilliantly evokes an ordered mind which has started to disintegrate, with its chair, window, knick knacks, and extensive library), and Lucy Cohu and James Hillier do what they can with small but necessary roles.

This production belongs to Pryce and Atkins, though, who match each other moment by moment, and completely convince throughout.  This rather marvellous, quiet, and short (80 minutes) piece runs at the Wyndham’s until the 1st December.

Photos by Hugo Glendinning.


War Horse (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

As part of the commerations marking the end of the First World War, the acclaimed adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel returns to the National Theatre eleven years after its debut.  War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, adapted by Nick Stafford, designed by Rae Smith, and produced in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.

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Young Albert (Thomas Dennis) rears Joey, a part-thoroughbred horse, even persuading him to plough the fields on the farm. His father Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) is a feckless drinker, whose decision to stay home and look after the business in the last war has left him behind his successful brother, Arthur (William Ilkley). His wife (Jo Castleton) has become resigned to her marriage but fiercely protects her son and his interests.

Once war is declared, Ted smells money and sells Joey to the Army for use as a cavalry horse for sympathetic Major Nicholls (Ben Ingles): Albert vows that they will be together again someday, and eventually circumstance forces the sixteen year-old to follow cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) into battle, and thus the fortunes of both man and horse are followed until the day of Armistice.

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By utilising puppetry to bring life to Joey and his fellow battle horse, Topthorn, and to birds, a goose who provides comic diversion in lighter days, and the equine victims of conflict, this production provides an anthropomorphism which stays close to Joey’s narration of the original novel.

His bond with Albert, then Topthorn, and later with the sympathetic German captain Friedrich (Peter Becker) and French girl Emile (Joelle Brabban) is perfectly conveyed, and you quickly forget that these animals are brought to life by gifted puppeteers inhabiting their hearts and hinds.

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A sparsley dressed set backed by simple video projection conjures up Albert’s home farm, No Man’s Land, the parade ground, a French village, and a field hospital.  The sound and lighting design, the interludes with the Song Man (Bob Fox), and the acting of Dennis, Becker, Castleton and the sergeant (Jason Furnival) in particular, make this production an emotional rollercoaster, which does not outstay its 165 minute running time, and which treats the memories of serving men and animals in conflict with respect.

I previously saw War Horse during NT Live, in 2014, when it was still running at the New London Theatre.  It was a rather different experience to this one, but still powerful. If you wish to catch War Horse (2018), then you will need to try for Friday Rush or day tickets for the remaining performances (to the 5th January 2019).

After that, the production continues its UK tour, visiting Glasgow, Sunderland, Canterbury, Stoke-on-Trent, then visits Ireland (Dublin) and New Zealand (Auckland).  I wish everyone involved luck for a successful run, and I would urge prospective audiences to go and book for this superb adaptation.

Photo credits: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.

 

 


Mythic (Charing Cross Theatre)

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Daniella Bowen as Demeter. Photo by Marc Brenner.

This bright new musical takes the stories of the Greek Gods and presents them as you might not have seen them before.

Zeus (Tim Oxbrow) is having a party to honour his daughter Athena, and his daughter Aphrodite (Goddess of Love) is doing her best to gain his attention.  What better way than to bring along the sheltered Persephone, daughter of the banished Demeter (Goddess of the Earth) to Olympus?

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Michael Mather as Hades and the cast of Mythic. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Zeus is a strutter but ultimately a coward, and when Aphrodite’s power of love turns Persephone and the dangerous Hades (God of the Dead) to each other, and banishes Persephone to the Underworld, there are choices they all need to make.

In a brisk 80 minutes, seventeen songs contribute to this mainly sung-through musical, in which the twelve cast members all have a chance to shine, but especially Michael Mather (Hades) in his professional debut, Georgie Westall (Persephone), Daniella Bowen (Demeter), and Australian lawyer turned performer Genevieve McCarthy (a Paris Hiltonesque Aphrodite), who are all terrific and give their characters real depth.

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Georgie Westall as Persephone and the cast of Mythic. Photo by Marc Brenner.

You don’t need to know your Greek mythology to enjoy this, although if you do you will get an extra kick from seeing the Persephone in the Underworld take unfold, and you might like her positive spin on Charon’s boat trips on the Styx or the gardens of Hell.

The score by Oran Eldor and book/lyrics by Marcus Stevens hits the funny bone while still presenting touching moments around the growing relationship between a teenage girl and her devoted mother (“I don’t always like you, but I always love you”), and the problems of having the need to play favourites (Aphrodite is such a spoilt brat until she is able to see how her powers can be used for good rather than mischief).

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Genevieve McCarthy as Aphrodite. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Sarah O’Gleby directs and choreographs, and Chris Ma keeps tight control of a talented musical ensemble.  This has a lot of potential to grow and become a longer show,  but if you want to experience it as it currently is, and to support the company (Ben Lancaster, Ben Welch, Courtney Brogan Smalley, Eloise Davies, Jade Marvin and Jamie Ross fill out the remaining roles), go and see it now.

Mythic continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 24th November, and you can book tickets here.

 

 


Dave Gorman (Royal Festival Hall)

With a new show entitled ‘With Great Powerpoint Comes Great Responsibility Point’, Dave Gorman brings a hilarious new show on tour with lots of insight, more than a few surprises, a lot of Powerpoint slides, and a killer joke about a giraffe.

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It’s a long show – we excited the hall at 10.45pm – and one Nick Doody supports in a kind of subversive John Shuttleworth-style.  Not to give any secrets or segments of the show away, I can say there is a great pre-show routine which pays off after the interval, and a domestic with the often-quoted Mrs Gorman which ends up involving some old friends you’ll recognise from ‘Modern Life is Goodish‘ in a convoluted way.

You may get old favourites.  You may get new perspectives.  You may never look at one particular word with a silent letter in it again.  You’ll be talking about the giraffe joke for weeks.  A high point of Gorman’s appeal.

Ever since ‘Are You Dave Gorman‘ debuted on TV in 2001, Gorman’s modus operandi has been a laptop, a checked shirt, a clicker, and a lot of cheek.  His fast-moving and quirky mind makes connections between the most mundane items and utilises social media platforms to develop routines in bizarre directions.  Not for him the basic fruits of observational comedy beloved of so many stand-ups.

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A superior evening which will make you cry with laughter and keep you on your toes.

 


Twelfth Night (Young Vic)

You will get into the party spirit as soon as you step into the Young Vic Theatre and see the brightly coloured streets of Illyria. A professional cast of eleven are supplemented by a talented and lively community chorus who join in the musical numbers, adding to the general atmosphere of the place.  This is where young Viola finds herself washed up on shore the day the coffin of Olivia’s brother is taken away in a (white) van for his final journey.

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View from audience. Photo by Louise Penn.

The bare bones of the Shakespeare original survives in this adaptation, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah (who also co-directs with Oskar Eustis) and Shaina Taub (who wrote the music and lyrics for the big numbers). Some of the original verse survives in musical form, notably for Malvolio, while some is modernised into a more contemporary venacular, but without dumbing-down the text. There’s also good use of props including the van, crash barriers, window shades and confetti showers.

Viola (Gabrielle Brooks, who is excellent in her borrowed clothes and spectacles as the confused Cesario, displaying assumed masculinity as well as a growing feminine maturity) seeks employment with the Duke Orsino (Rupert Young), who conveniently lives next to a pub called ‘The Duke of Illyria’. He is enamoured of the frosty Olivia (Natalie Dew, who exudes a frustrated sexiness), who lives in mourning with her maid Maria (Gbemisola Ikumelo). Maria in turn lusts after the bawdy and boozy Sir Toby Belch (a menacing Martyn Ellis), uncle to Olivia; Olivia falls for the young ‘Cesario’; and Olivia’s hand is also sought by Welsh sot Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Silas Wyatt-Barke).

As if all the confusion is not bad enough, Viola has a brother who unbeknownsed to her, did not drown on their fated voyage. This Sebastian (Jyuddah Jaymes) was rescued by fugitive from justice Antonio (Jonathan Livingstone), who has an infatuation for his young friend. If you can believe that a boy and girl born as twins can be identical, you can see the mischief this play will bring, but the adaptation also plays with gender identity in musical numbers about ‘disguise being the devil’, about ‘what kind of man are you’, and in Feste’s lament while Orsino and ‘Cesario’ struggle with their feelings for each other, ‘is this not love>?’ – Melissa Allan, incidentally, makes a memorable Feste and adds to the gender-reversal in view.

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Viola, Orsino and Feste. Photo by Johan Persson.

Finally, Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Gerard Carey) has inflated delusions of grandeur, and he also gets a big top hat dance number, and the chance to look truly ridiculous in hideous yellow lycra. His vanity and assumption that his is an undeniable attraction to his mistress makes for the high points of the play, although his final exit is somewhat dampened by an almost genuine ‘I hope you will all be very happy’. Still, to see the character on a Segway, doing a big production number about ‘greatness’, and providing a truly farcical take on the letter scene which becomes almost piteous by the exchange about a light with Feste, is worth the admission price alone.

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Malvolio. Photo by Johan Persson.

All is well by the end of proceedings in the town of Illyria, with three married couples, two sisters, reunited twins, and a lively closing number. ‘The word on the street’ is that this musical reboot of the Bard is quite a success.

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Twelfth Night runs at the Young Vic until the 17th November 2018. Buy your tickets here.

You can listen to the cast recording of the production which ran in New York in 2016 here.


The Wider Earth (Natural History Museum)

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Marcello Cruz and Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to a pre-preview of some scenes from The Wider Earth, together with a Q&A with the cast and a chance to meet some of the amazing puppets from the Dead Puppet Society up close.

Now the production is fully open, and I’ve been invited back to report on the finished article.  The Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum has been turned into a theatre which seats roughly 300 people in a mix of floor and raised seating, and the rotating set we saw in previews has now been augmented by lighting, a backdrop for animation, and an immersive soundscape.

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Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

David Morton’s play has previously played in Australia, following periods of mentoring  in Cape Town with Handspring (creators of the puppets used in War Horse), and further planning in New York.  There is a cast of seven and a number of puppets with personality – including an iguana, butterflies, birds (small and large), fish, armadillos, a duck-billed platypus, and two large Galapagos tortoises.

Bradley Foster, as the young Charles Darwin leaving the chance of theological study behind to join a round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t have puppeteer duties; the rest (some of which have previous experience in the area) do well in making these curious creatures come to life.  It’s also his first leading role and he does well in portraying the young man who grows in knowledge and understanding as he sails.

As we move from Cambridge, where Darwin makes a friend of the Professor (Andrew Bridgmont) who can see his quality and inspires his curiosity, to the Manor where Darwin senior (Ian Houghton) only sees the priesthood as destination for his wayward child, the hill where Darwin promises fidelity and marriage to his beloved Emma (Melissa Vaughan), and onto the ship, we watch as sketches build the landscape behind the stage.

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Melissa Vaughan, Andrew Bridgmont, Matt Tait, Bradley Foster, Ian Houghton, Jack Parry-Jones. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Once on the voyage, captained by the religious and constrained FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones), Darwin starts to gain a new understanding of the world around him and the power of nature, as each island landing brings new creatures to study, with their modifications to suit their landscape.  The Revd Matthews (also Houghton), who is on a mission back to Tierra del Fuego to bring Christianity to the “savages”, sees only the power of the Lord, and Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), bought and paid for, only sees a need for returning to his home.  John Clements Wickham (Matt Tait), the second in command on the ship, attempts to be a voice of reason between opposing factions.

The Wider Earth does not assume to give answers about the power of creation, but sows the seeds for the lifetime work Charles Darwin undertook after stepping back on British soil after his five years on the HMS Beagle.  His theories of evolution and of natural selection started by studying beetles, rocks and fauna of unfamiliar terrains, but his account of his work on the Beagle brought him fame and attention.

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Cast of The Wider Earth. Photo credit Mark Douet.

If I had a small quibble about this show, it is that just occasionally the sound piped through speakers around the Gallery overpower the actors on stage, but this only affects a couple of scenes, and I don’t think anything of the sense of the production is lost.  The puppets can be clearly seen and appreciated due to clever lighting and the gifted manipulation of their cast operators, and the story is interesting and easily understandable, even to younger audience members (10 and above).

The programme (£7) is full of information on the genesis of The Wider Earth, and the journey it has taken so far.  David Morton skillfully directs his own work, and the music by Lior and Tony Buchen fits in with the nature theme without feeling superfluous or inappropriate.

The Wider Earth runs at the Natural History Museum until the 30 December 2018; you can purchase tickets here.


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