Prior to a run at The Other Palace, Amelie has been on a UK tour and this week stopped off in Reading.
Based on the popular French film and directed by Michael Fentiman, this musical teams Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in the roles of Amelie and Nino, with a company of actor-musicians.
The show has a sense of the absurd, with puppets (child Amelie, a fish), a garden gnome, three giant figs, and a bizarre dream sequence which brings Elton John out of reports of the Princess of Wales’s funeral into a celebration of Amelie herself.
The score by Daniel Messe, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen, is richly constructed, the playing of the lead role delightful. A clever set (by Madeleine Girling) utilises the pivotal photo booth where Nino collects offcuts from customer’s lives, making it the main entrance and exit plus the route up to Amelie’s circulat haven.
We first encounter Amelie as a child, shielded from social intercourse by her mother and utilised by her doctor father ,(Jez Unwin) as a patient of curiosity. Slowly she retreats into a dreamworld where real life is kept at arm’s length, even when she leaves home and takes up a job as a waitress.
Like Jane Austen’s Emma, Amelie is about a girl who makes a difference to people’s lives: the owner of a box of marbles, a lonely widow, a grocer’s assistant, her father, and ultimately, herself.
Amelie has vibrant colours, Parisian streets, shops and stalls, and even electronically projected words. It is endlessly inventive and the company of sixteen gels well together – as well as Brisson, Mac and Unwin, I’d like to single out Sophie Crawford (Gina, the widow), Johnson Willis (the priest and grocer), and Faoileann Cunningham (big-hearted Suzanne).
Amelie may make you laugh, smile or bewilder you, but you’ll fall in love with the young gamine who has more of a hint of Leslie Caron, and you will never be bored.
Three ladies stand, frozen, with microphones poised on a raised bit of stage as the audience takes their seats in the auditorium of the New Diorama. Two others sit, one each side of the stage area, still and quiet.
It’s 1949, and Iva Toguri (Maya Britto) is on trial for treason, but is that her crime or is her birth country the USA looking for someone to blame “who looks Japanese” after a bruising and demoralising war?
Based on a true story, Tokyo Rose is a brave and powerful new musical from Burnt Lemon Theatre written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, and directed by Hannah Benson. It is female-led and fuses rap with more traditional solos, duets, trios and ensemble songs (composed by William Patrick Harrison).
Iva Toguri finds herself an enemy alien in Japan when she is stranded looking after her aunt just as Pearl Harbor is bombed. Her choices: give up her US citizenship, which she cannot do, and broadcast on a propaganda network, which she does, lead to exploitation first by a British major loyal to the allies (Cara Baldwin, also playing the prosecutor) and then by an unscrupulous American journalist (Benson, also playing the judge) sniffing out a scoop whether true or not.
A huge hit at this year’s Edinburgh fringe, this show boasts impressive vocals and harmonies from its cast of five, and a plot which gives Iva and those around her (mother – Yuki Sutton, aunt – Lucy Park) real heart. By the courtroom scenes we are firmly on her side seeing an injustice done: her only crime her naive belief in patrotism.
Tokyo Rose does not shy away from the impact of war on anyone involved – the native Japanese, the American citizens with Jaoanese heritage, the American military, the displaced Americans in Japan. Any thought of victory is a hollow one when families die in camps or are vaporized by an atomic bomb.
Iva becomes “little orphan Ann” but her broadcasts are pitched as satire, not sedition: her words aimed against the country in which she is alien, not against the flag.
I found Tokyo Rose a vibrant piece of theatre which takes a little-known piece of history and gives a voice to its protagonist. In real-life, Toguri (as we are told in an ending round-up) was eventually cleared of her alleged crime, the Rose having been an allied invention appropriated by an opportunist hack and fuelled by xenophobia. She remained a loyal American and died in 2006 at the age of 90.
Tokyo Rose runs at the New Diorama until 12 October. It’s practically sold out, but you could try the returns queue. Production photo credit – The Other Richard.
I attended the final day of previews for this revival, and was thoroughly entertained by the story of Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw, at sea and on land.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was written in 1949, taking inspiration from the flapper-era novel by Anita Loos. It’s a traditional book musical, composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Leo Robin, and is inevitably living in the shadow of the 1953 film (in which Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei).
The Union Theatre has a reputation for punching above its weight with musicals, with creative use of their small performance space. Even the bar-cafe gets into the act in the interval, with a pianist, high kicking dancers and Parisian waiters enticing you back for the act two floor-show.
Lorelei is dating “the button king” heir, Gus Esmond, but he has to let her board a ship without him, and with her being a stereotypical bubble blonde, complete with Boop-a-Boop voice a la Helen Kane. When she is aboard, temptation is high with rich men and diamonds around – “Diamonds Are Girl’s Best Friend”, after all.
Of course, Loos’s book is dated, and her female characters are eother looking for a meal ticket, a drink, or a quick route to fame. The men are either ambitious but dysfunctional, or decorative dancers, and they are effective alone (Aaron Bannister-Davies as Gus, George Lennan as Gage “the zipper king”, Freddie King as idealist Henry, Tom Murphy as opportist rover Sir Francis) or as a team.
This aside, all the women in this show are played well, and I liked Eleanor Lakin’s laconic Dorothy and Virge Gilchrist’s tipsy Mrs Spofford in particular. Ashlee Young is a fine mover as serial “practiser” Gloria, and Maria Mosquera’s long-suffering Lady Beekman is a picture of English restraint.
Abigayle Honeywill, as Lorelei, has big shoes to fill but navigates the expectation without falling into imitation of her screen predecessor, with a winning “I’m Just a Little Girl From Little Rock” and a wisp of wide-eyed innocence.
This show sets out to be entertaining, and it does so with competence and a bit of naughty fun (there’s a hint as to how Lorelei, Dorothy, and Gloria might have clawed their way into the society set).
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is directed by Sasha Regan, choreographed by Zak Nemorin, and designed by Justin Williams, with Henry Brennan as musical director.
It continues at the Union Theatre until 26 October. Production photo credits by Mark Senior.
There are one-person shows, and there is Shida. I went in fresh to this, knowing only it was a musical devised, written and performed by Jeannette Bayardelle.
The story of Shida, one character of many in this short (75 minute) piece, is a familiar one of innocence and knowing, rise and fall, ambition and pain, and ultimate survival.
When we first meet her, she’s a child, playing hopscotch, a whirlwind of energy which her mom, her teacher, and new best friend Jackie have to keep grounded. Her destiny as a bright and precocious child is to be a writer.
Men mistreat her. Daddy has another four children with a wife, with Shida and her mom as “the other woman/the other girl”. Uncle Steve stands too close and ignores pleas not “to touch me like that”. White boyfriend Joe gets her hooked to her crack pipe.
Shida tells its story through song and characters, with the intensity of being right there in the room as events happy and traumatic chip away to reveal the vulnerable core beneath.
There in the room with Uncle Steve. There in the hospital three pivotal times. There on the streets, as Bayardelle breaks the fourth wall twice: one as Jackie, rubbishing Shida’s dalliance with a butch lesbian, then as Shida herself, begging tricks.
Shida is an incredible piece of writing, years in the making and developed by the leading lady with her director Andy Sandberg. Accompanied by MD Noam Galperin and a small band, there is nowhere to hide in this boutique venue. The music is loud. The singing is jaw-dropping. The plot is emotionally devastating, in the end.
I’m glad this made the transition from New York, although I still find the venue a bit odd and definitely laidback (the matinee started fifteen minutes late and no reason was given). The use of props for characters: patterned skirt, dress, grad cap, beanie hat, specs, a box, a bracelet, a shawl, a book, brings the women to life. The men are voiceless.
But it was worth it. As Ms Bayardelle herself said in a brief break of character for a pause and water, “Jesus, this is hard work!”. It shows in every sinew, every bead of sweat and every big, big note.
True stories: Jackie/Jeannette did become a great singer, and her friend Shida conquered her demons.
My first visit to the fifty-seater Hope Theatre (situated above the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington), and I’m here to see Out of the Forest’s production of Call Me Fury, a play written by Sasha Wilson and further devised by the company with Hannah Hauer-King.
We probably all have our own perceptions about witchcraft in general, and the Salem witch trials in particular, something that Wilson blames on Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (admittedly a favourite of mine, which I have reviewed in productions at The Yard and at the Old Vic).
Call Me Fury reclaims the voices of Abigail, Tichiba, Sarah Good and Bridget Bishop, in a blend of song, anecdote, comedy, and historical explanation which gives voice to “our fallen sisters”.
Along with Wilson, a chatty American who starts off proceeedings by dismissing the myth of the Abigail-Proctor affair and goes on to reclaim the place of women, the cast consists of Mairi Hawthorn (a chilling Abigail, plagued by memories of seeing her village pillaged and family massacred), Gracie Lai (measured and confident as Sarah Good, effective as a royal handmaiden killed for her spells), and Olivia Kennett (a regal Tichiba and a calm yet coiled storyteller).
This is a bold feminist take on The Crucible, interspersed with real stories of supposed witches across the world: one at the end brings us up short and into the present day, evoked with a sense of sadness, shock and silence.
The stage is strewn with autumn leaves and dominated by a wooden cross, which even lights up at one point. The set by David Spence is deceptively simple, the lighting design by Holly Ellis hugely evocative of oppression, small spaces, darkness, fear and prejudice in the dark, hope and courage in the light. Our characters brush past the audience, hold eye contact, whisper in ears, crouch down close-by, and challenge us to be complicit in the story.
Abigail, a child of twelve, afflicted by trauna, lies to protect herself and to be noticed: as she says at one point, “boy cries wolf, girl cries witch”. Women know their place in history but go down fighting. Speak, says Wilson, and you will be heard, even if you are not seen in black clothes and the details we have on you are sketchy.
For the sake of our fallen sisters, do better, comes the message. Call Me Fury gives a voice to the poor, the odd, the bitchy, the frightened, the misunderstood of womankind everywhere. It is dark, funny, moving and brave.
Sue Townsend’s series of books about spotty teenage intellectual Adrian Mole were hugely successful in the 1980s, as were the two TV adaptations starring Gian Samarco as the eponymous hero.
Now, the musical version has been enjoying a West End residency, following a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2017. It utilises a small cast: four children who appear on rotation, and six adults.
Using a set by Tom Rogers of sliding walls, hidden cupboards, and doors, plus a wash of lighting tricks by Howard Hudson that evoke the shapes and colours of 1980s confectionery, this show pulls us right back into young Adrian’s formative decade. It’s a feeling underlined by the cheesy mixtape played as the audience are taking their seats.
Adrian is the only child of slovenly parents George and Pauline, and they live in Leicester. He drinks, she drudges, and their son writes poetry and obsessively worries over the size of his “thing”: around the stage prosenium are rulers spelling out that fact in glorious centimetres.
While Adrian’s heart starts to flutter at the sight of posh new pupil Pandora (“daddy is an accountant, and a socialist, who sent me to comprehensive hell”), his home life breaks apart as mum Pauline is seduced by sleazy neighbour Mr Lucas.
The songs, by personal and professional partners Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, not only capture the time in which the show is set, but also the feeling of navigating confusing feelings as a growing child.
Through seventeen songs, a year progresses and everyone has a chance to join in – Mum Dad, Mr Lucas, Grandma, Bert, Nigel, Barry, dirty Doreen (who isn’t a million miles removed from Nigel Slater’s stepmum in Toast), and even despicable schoolmaster Mr Scruton and scatty Miss Elf.
I enjoyed Michael Hawkins as Adrian, a mass of confusion mixed with fake bravado whether sending a poem off to the BBC, standing up to bullies, or watching with bewilderment as his mum and dad behave badly without him.
Matilda Hopkins (Pandora), Cuba Kamanu (Nigel) and Charlie Stripp (little bruiser Barry), also excelled and were ably supported by the adults – Amy Ellen Richardson (Pauline), Andrew Langtree (George), John Hopkins (Lucas/Scruton), Rosemary Ashe (Grandma), Lara Denning (Miss Elf/Doreen, displaying a fun range), and Ian Talbot (Bert). All six adults also portray school pupils where required.
The small band, hidden above the action most of the time, are led by MD Mark Collins with the songs (perky but unmemorable) accompanied with a spark and a flourish. It was fun to see them revealed during one section, and they are certainly a hard-working group. Director Luke Sheppard proves that working with children and animals – albeit a puppet dog – can sometimes be a success.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole hits the spot for both 80s nostalgics (who may cringe at shell-suits and deely boppers) and those new to Sue Townsend’s amusing books. I enjoyed its spirit and its sense of fun; it’s no classic, but two and a half hours flew by and – one little technical mishap aside – everything flows quickly while still retaining time for chsracter development.
Cora Bissett was once a teenage rocker, lead singer at seventeen in a band called Darlingheart, the pride of Fife. She’s reminded of this, and reminds us, while cradling a box she found while clearing out her parents’ loft after her dad’s death from dementia. She’s wearing a Pixies TV shirt.
That’s the premise of this play with music, What Girls Are Made Of. It is a familiar story in many ways: Bissett discovers the music and image of Patti Smith and wants nothing more than to be like her, answering a local newspaper call to join a band with two older chaps, Clark and Cameron, and with a younger schoolmate, Cathryn, on drums.
Darlingheart are edgy, hungry and naive. With a dodgy record deal involving multiple blank cheques, a succession of support gigs (Sultans of Ping FC, Radiohead, Blur), a lot of alcohol, and a sleazy manager, Cora and her cohorts are living the dream until the NME decide otherwise and give their album a damning review.
In parallel with Darlingheart’s rise and fall, we hear about Cora’s parents: her gentle dad from the Irish countryside with his huge hands, eventually lost to dementia; her strong Scots mum like a “Shetland pony facing the wind”, pragmatic even in the face of MS in middle age.
This mix of the professional, the personal, and the parodies of industry insiders and rock icons makes this show something special. Bissett herself is centre stage as writer, performer, and muse, showcasing a powerful singing voice and a dreamy, lyrical way with words, but her band of actor-musicians (Emma Smith, Harry Ward, Simon Donaldson) add colour with all the other characters.
Ultimately, this is less about Cora the teenage rocker than Cora growing into the woman she is today; informed by the diaries she kept in great detail year on year, supported by the dream that still allows her to rock out, Smith-like, before her audience, but wiser and reflective, a settled, creative, mother.
There will be aspects of What Girls Are Made Of which speak to every woman: whether following a dream, dealing with a bully, standing up for your rights (an anecdote about some icky publicity photos is prescient in the #MeToo era), facing up to a bad decision (I’d have liked to hear more about why Cora and Cameron didn’t speak for 25 years), watching your parents succumb to weakness, and finding yout own contentment.
This is a musical, but not one you might expect. Taking place in the disturbed mind of Sergei Rachmaninov during a period of writer’s block, it take the form of a series of brief encounters: appropriate when you consider the use of his No. 2 concerto in the classic 1940s film of that name.
Preludes harks back to the piano piece which made the composer’s name when he was just nineteen; when the whole world seemed open to him. But fame does not bring deity or immortality, as we will see as we follow the plot of this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frustrating, show.
The music, which uses original pieces by Dave Malloy alongside, and meshed with, the works of the great Russian composer, is largely electronic and sometimes a chore to experience. The set (designed by Rebecca Brower) resembles a raised stage, but some of the gleaming black floor tiles have been ripped or clawed up, adding to the sense of unease.
The lighting (by Christopher Nairne) only really comes into its own during act two, when Rachmaninov crouches at the base of the stairs in the audience as his opera star dons biker leathers and a blood-red cloak to evoke a heavy metal influenced devil, accompanied by flashes, strobes and washes of red light. Another striking piece of lighting comes later when a drunken conductor reduces a sublime symphony to ridicule.
Georgia Louise, Rebecca Caine, Tom Noyes, Steven Serlin, Norton James and Keith Ramsay display beautiful singing voices and harmonies when the electronics are stripped back and moments of lucidity take place: at a marriage, during a period of hypnosis. I longed for more of this.
With the topic of mental health in the arts remaining a very current concern, the time is certainly right for Preludes to take to the UK stage, and it is a brave and non-confirming production; however I found the staring and physical ticks of Ramsay’s Rachmaninov did not always convince, nor the use of modern references and turns of phrase. The use of a pianist ‘double’ for the composer’s troubled psyche was effective, and sometimes moving.
Malloy and director Alex Sutton bring quick sketches of the characters of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas to the piece, as these “great men” interact with the fractured mind of a composer who enumerates each hour he is awake and refrains from the act of creating his next work.
Preludes is certainly not for everyone, but with on-stage sound technicians, a dreamlike state, and more than a sprinkle of chutzpah, it has moments of true emotional power, and does its best to subvert an audience’s expectation of what musical theatre could and should be.
I viewed a preview performance of Preludes, which continues at the Southwark Playhouse. Rehearsal photo by Scott Rylander.
Marvin wants it all. Trina is breaking down. Whizzer is playing games, literally and emotionally. Mendel is having a professional crisis. And Jason is growing up quickly in a home which has fallen apart. We are in New York, in 1978.
These are the “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” we meet at the top of Falsettos, with a quick rush through when Marvin married Trina, Jason was born, and when Marvin left with his young and horny “friend” Whizzer to fracture his family home.
Mendel’s the psychiatrist who is counselling Marvin, then Trina, then Jason, who is super-smart and very perceptive (“My father says that love is the most wonderful thing in the world / I think chess is the most wonderful thing / Not love”).
In a set full of frames, some of which change time and place, some of which put the characters in little boxes (“wife and child”, “lover”), we start to get to know our characters. Marvin, an older man, is drawn to the selfish, fit and promiscuous Whizzer, the “pretty boy” who is a match physically, but not emotionally (“The Games I Play”).
Trina, struggling to raise a boy who is kicking against puberty and moving from browsing toy shops to thinking about girls, is struggling, and in her big act one number (“Breaking Down”), Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the roof and receives the first prolonged piece of applause. By act two, she’s mellowed, playing house with Mendel, tolerating Marvin’s transgressions (“I don’t like Whizzer / but Marvin sure does”).
Originally written as two shows, Falsettos feels like two complementary halves rather than a linear narrative. Every performer in act one’s March of the Falsettos is superb: Pitt-Pulford, Daniel Boys and his middle-aged Marvin, Oliver Savile’s fun-loving Whizzer, Joel Montague’s sensible Mendel (once he’s moved on from wondering whether Trina “sleeps in the nude”), and on the night I was invited to view the show, George Kennedy in his stage debut as the precocious Jason.
There’s a dream sequence where Trina constructs her new family circle: by act two’s Falsettoland, and Jason’s bar mitzvah, he’s described as “son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel”, as the fun of the cooking attempts of the additional “lesbians next door” becomes the close, loving and forgiving space of an anonymous hospital room of 1981.
I found the score by William Finn and book by James Lapine sometimes very reminiscent of Sondheim in its melodies and complex lyrics, but beautifully performed throughout with memorable songs – I had only heard some of the music at the recent press launch but have been humming snatches since I saw the show on Friday.
As a performing unit, the tight-knit adult cast of six, plus four rotating Jasons, are easy and warm together in this piece which is ultimately about friends, family and all forms of love. This is the strength of Falsettos, a place where a boy moves through the rite of passage to a man, even if he will always fail at baseball.
The title of Falsettos, said my companion at the show, may refer to “false love”, or, as I prefer to think of it, a love that takes time to settle into a form where everyone loves each other in a way which is right for them.
By the end scenes, we haven’t doubted the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer for a moment, and we see Trina’s happiness shining through with Mendel: in turn, he teases Jason’s reticence out with that song about hating your parents (“God understands / because he / hated his”).
From its genesis in 1978 through to the previous UK performance of March of the Falsettos, this musical has been culturally relevant to an era of homophobia, intolerance and fear. Ultimately, as the tagline goes, “love can tell a million stories”, and that is what matters.
Falsettos is directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, designed by PJ McEvoy, and Richard John is the musical director. I feel it is an important revival with an emotional punch to the gut by the end. Welcome to Falsettoland.
Falsettos continues at The Other Palace until 23 November 2019. Photo credits The Standout Company.
I was invited to review the debut show by Kyra Jessica Willis, The Feeling, which promised to be a bold, modern, dark comedy musical.
The songs take the form of recognisable pop hits from the likes of REM, Roxette, Demi Lovato, Radiohead, Savage Garden, Counting Crows, Avril Lavigne, Chris Isaak and Fun. They generally work well in the fabric of the show, which provides a look at a group of friends sharing their highs, lows, dreams, hopes, and paranoia.
Willis herself plays Jessie, first seeming to be just a bitchy woman who plays with people, but developing into someone who needs hugs and happiness. Her close friend (and possibly former lover) is coffee-shop owner and peacemaker Mel, played with a touch of wisdom by Halie Darling, and she is in turn taking shaky steps into romance with geeky Jamie (a sweet George C Francis, who also directs the show).
Jessie and Edie (Chloe Hazel, psychologically shaky and with a heart of stone) have an odd relationship which seems to have more to it than their shared ex-partner, Kasey (PJ Tomlinson). Constantly needling each other and seeking attention, their animosity feels very immature and disturbing.
Then there’s Lexie (a delicate Pippa Lea, whose fractured vocals give realism to her situation), who falls for nice guy Archie (Sean Erwood, only in his teens but providing a strong and sensible glue within the group): he’s faced and got through a crisis which may come back to haunt him.
Finally, there’s Holt (Chris Barton), in love with Jessie and on the periphery of the group. This set of people navigating the perils of growing up meet each day in the coffee bar, talking about the small things in life, and sometimes the big things too.
A change in lighting for most of the songs put me in mind of Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago, where the musical interludes provide hidden thoughts which remain unspoken. Here, too, we get duets between Jessie/Edie, Jessie/Lexie and solos for Lexie, Edie, Jamie, Jessie which gives us that insight that isn’t in Willis’s dialogue.
The Feeling starts with a film projection of some of the backstory while Kasey sings the opening song, “Mr Jones”. After that we’re straight into what seems to be Friends territory but with extra tension, which escalates with Jessie and Edie’s refusal to speak and Lexie mourning her recent break-up.
As a play, I found some of the dialogue needed to be helped along by the songs, and some aspects came from nowhere (why are Lexie and Hoot siblings when they have no interaction). In the main, though, there is enough here to make you care and the use of “We Are Home” as the final song was particularly effective.
The characters have definitite potential and I felt the warm friendship between Jessie and Mel, the caring core of a Kasey who knew he’d made mistakes, the nervous anxiety of Jamie who doesn’t know how to behave around women, and the quiet desperation of a lonely Lexie.
The songs are well-chosen and beautifully accompanied by MD Connagh Tonkinson, who strips them back to their strong lyrical core. They are generally sung with a sense of realism and emotion, which I enjoyed, even if a handful of the choices have a personal resonance to me that briefly jolted me away from the drama.
Ultimately, The Feeling is an accomplished show from a young company which has a lot of potential: it isn’t perfect, but it shows a lot of heart and a willingness to engage with difficult and complex subjects without resorting to hysterics.
The Feeling has two more performances on 7 September, at 3pm and 8pm. It runs at around 2 hr 20 minutes including an interval.
The girl-power film which shone in the 80s now comes to the stage in the form of Dolly Parton’s frothy musical 9 to 5 at the Savoy Theatre. Originally due to close this month, it has since been extended, partially recast, and will run in tandem with a UK tour. Now seemed a good time for a visit.
The clock we see at the top of the show becomes a video screen on which the Queen of Country starts up the title song and then introduces the main female characters: Violet (a steely Caroline Sheen), Doralee (bubbly Dollyish Natalie McQueen), and Judy (stunning debut from Amber Davies, who leaves the show today).
They all work in the same office, and it is Judy’s first day in her first job after her husband Dick (leading to many double entendre jokes around his name) leaves her for a teenage bit of fluff.
The office is run as a soulless automation by leering and sexist boss Franklin Hart Jr (a scene-stealing Brian Conley), supported by memo-crazed and sex-starved company spy Ros (Bonnie Langford). Together these supply a huge amount of comic relief as she literally lets her hair down and he gets his comeuppence.
9 to 5 is a fun show which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and to be honest, even if they are performed well, doesn’t have particularly memorable songs. What it does have is a way for a woman to get the upper hand which still draws applause today, and an accomplished use of the Savoy’s deep and high stage.
The dance sequences by Lisa Stevens are excellent, particularly in the One of the Boys number, and there’s a rooftop scene which will bring a smile to your face. And, of course, Dolly’s back in virtual form by the end to tell us how the characters fared in later life.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun, the musical may not leave with you humming the songs, but you will have a smile on your face. I wouldn’t recommend taking the kids along, though.
A new production of the fifty-year old musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has been running through the summer at the Palladium – starring recent graduate Jac Yarrow i the lead role, with Sheridan Smith and Jason Donovan the star names to pull in the punters.
This week Smith is ill with laryngitis, and Vanessa Fisher appears as the Narrator instead. The role has been substantially expanded to include Jacob, Potiphar’s wife, and more: for me, Fisher’s sunny personality and aptitude for clowning made this palatable.
The score remains hummable and pleasant, with the occasional (but familiar) clunky rhyme. With songs which act as parodies of genres such as country, the boulevard, calypso and Elvis, the simple Bible story moves along quickly. Audiences have little chance to be bored at a 100 minute show, although I still find the closing Megamix unneccessary and a bit dated.
Yarrow is quite a find. Josephs in the past (including Gary Bond, Darren Day, Jason Donovan, Stephen Gately, Philip Schofield, Donny Osmond and Lee Mead) have strived to make the part their own, and any new Joseph donning the coloured coat has large shoes to fill. Yarrow not only has the voice but also the personality to win us over. I predict a long and successful future for him.
I watched the show from a restricted view seat in the Royal Box, so the set design couldn’t be fully appreciated; however, there are no rising platforms out into the audience and no expanding train for Joseph’s coat. The backdrops are fairly simple and the action is largely centre stage.
As Joseph began as a show for children, it is only right that a young cast play a large part in the musical. Here, it isn’t just backup on Joseph’s two big solo numbers, but also we have children playing Potiphar, Benjamin, the Butler and Baker, the goat, and other parts, which works well.
Jason Donovan’s casting has an air of the stunt about it, but the Pharoah is equivalent to Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, a showy bit of fun with a bit of Vegas glamour. So Donovan curls his lip, wiggles his hips, and wears a cape embroided with “The King”. I’ve seen better Pharoahs who caught the Elvis vibe, but the lady who shouted out “I love you, Jason” clearly disagreed!
With strong direction from Laurence Connor, excellent choreography by Joann M Hunter, and some good supporting bits (brother Simeon, played by Michael Pickering, sings well in Those Canaan Days), this is a definite hit revival – and I can’t forget John Rigby and his orchestra, who are fabulous.
Joseph continues at the London Palladium. I wouldn’t recommend my seat as the restriction is frustrating, but there are a few pricing options out there for the remainder of the run, and there are whispers of a 2020 return.
As part of the retrospective of Jonathan Harvey’s work at Above the Stag, we have this fine revival of the musical he wrote with “Britain’s most successful musical duo”, The Pet Shop Boys. It’s directed by Steven Dexter and choreographed by Ashley Luke Lloyd.
Closer to Heaven is set in the dark and drug-filled spaces of gay clubland, where scantily clad dancers strut their stuff around self-proclaimed momma, the ageing pop art icon Billie Trix (scene-stealing Adele Anderson).
Into this world comes Straight Dave (Blake Patrick Anderson), first as a barman, then on the dance floor. When that isn’t enough he moves from one predator to another, from alcoholic club manager (Christopher Howell) to red-eyed horny record promoter (Ian Hallard).
The set (beautifully designed by David Shields and lit by Jack Weir) is all dancing coloured lights, mirrors and projections to set the scene: apart from one brief moment, it is always inside, in the depths of night, where lines of coke are snorted, floor shows are rehearsed, sexual favours traded, or confidences shared.
Straight Dave’s life is complicated when love shows up in the forms of a girl (Shell, streetwise daughter of her gay dad, played by a feisty Maddy Banks) and a boy (drug dealer Mile End Lee, doing his best to keep sex as a transaction for money, played with sensitivity and street-cred by Mikulas Urbank).
In the cacophony of clubland and the plastic of manufactured pop, there is a tender love story, albeit one tinged with tragedy. This is the world of the young and beautiful, chasing their dreams in hotpants and illuminated halos.
Billie Trix, Bob Saunders and Vic Christian, as the older characters in the seedy space The Pet Shop Boys clearly know so well, have their own crosses to bear, and their own routes to survival.
Surrounding herself with images of her youth, Billie recalls “loving many genders” in a Dietrich accent; Saunders paws at young boys with an eager fist full of money and nothing behind his dead eyed bravado; Christian sucks the lifeblood from his own addiction (Vampires).
The songs are a mix of club anthems, ballads, and in one section, a mini-musical about the mad emperor Caligula. Although you hear hints of PSB hits like Rent here and there in the opening bars, Closer to Heaven is full of original, catchy tunes and knowing dance routines.
The music and songs lift a plot that is part Cabaret with all its decadence, part Romeo and Juliet (and Romeo), and all the performances are fine, with Anderson particularly outstanding as the ageing diva who reveals herself to be the wise old woman who nurtures everyone around her (Friendly Fire).
Closer to Heaven closes on 31 August 2019. Photos by Gaz at PBG Studios.
I believe this is my first show from the British Theatre Academy, one of a portfolio of five they are presenting in their summer season.
Once On This Island is a musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) and is described on the flyer as “a captivating calypso-flavoured re-telling of The Little Mermaid fairy tale”.
Directed and choreographed by Lee Proud, this production presents a vibrant young company to tell the story of the peasant orphan Ti Moune and her romance with a rich boy.
The stage of the Southwark Playhouse’s Large space is fully utilised with every inch brought into play with sound, colour, dancing and dynamic storytelling. The floor is decorated with island maps, and there are ribbons, shakers, tyres, boxes and ladders utilised at various points to suggest a change in location.
Matthew Chandler founded the British Theatre Academy to provide access to professional training for under-23s of all socioeconomic backgrounds, an ethos which seems echoed by the dedication and professionalism of the performers in this show.
It is hard to single out performers in such a small and tight-knit ensemble, and in fact the company as a whole has received a well-deserved Offies nomination, but Chrissie Bhima shines as Ti Moune, and several ensemble players caught the eye (sadly the programme does not team names with photographs, so I cannot credit them specifically).
I enjoyed the tricky and layered harmonies, the joyous atmosphere in the performance space, and the cultural richness of myth and legend depicted in Once On This Island, especially the spirit of Carnival in this week of the Notting Hill festivities.
The show continues until 31 August at the Southwark Playhouse.
The story of Anna Edson Taylor and her successful attempt to cross Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 has always fascinated me, so when an opportunity arose to see the musical based on her story I had to see it.
Mrs Taylor (there’s no hint of a husband) is first shown living with her sister, where she lives beyond her means and longs for adventure (and money). Seeing a gap in the market and feeling she has science behind her, she seeks to do what no woman – or man – has done before: to go over the Falls and survive.
Michael John LaChiusa has created a score which in twenty songs weaves a harmonic narrative which works well in songs such as Anna’s There Is Greatness In Me in act one, or The Green (about the motivation of all public speakers to earn money) in act two.
Trudi Camilleri leads the cast with a set of pipes to rival the great Ethel Merman in a barn-storming turn that dominates proceedings. She convinces both as the selfish and arrogant adventuter, and the sad old woman facing destitution by the close of the show.
In a strong first half interesting relationships are explored between Anna and her straightlaced sister Jane (Emily Juler), and Anna and her showboating manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel, with whom Camilleri displays a cordial and warm frisson of friendship which suits both characters).
After the stunt/experiment is concluded, though, I found the second act a little indulgent and uneven, with one scene and number (Million Dollar Momma) adding little to the plot. Knowing that Anna survives removes any sense of tension and even the talk of an eroticised tiger doesn’t quite keep the pace moving, nor the reappearance of President McKinley’s assassin from act one, now a ghost.
The stage is in traverse with audience seating on each side, the sides of the set crammed with shelves of bric-a-brac and everyday detritus, with balconies holding the band (led by Connor Fogel) on one side, and the cast coming together on occasion to harmonise on the other.
Although this configuration can often work well, especially to suggest claustrophobia (such as in the interior of a barrel), the choice by director Dom O’Hanlon to stage songs back and forth between audience sides led to long stretches looking at the back of actors’ heads as they sang, which I found a little frustrating.
The beauty of this production is in the exquisite lighting design of Beth Gupwell, the period costumes of Lemington Ridley, and in the performance of the dynamic Camilleri and some of her supporting cast (Andrew Carter has a rolling bass as deep as the waters; Tom Blackmore – who also acts well as the nervous young soldier – has a fine tenor voice; Emma Ralston is a versatile alto).
I would personally trim the second act just a little and concentrate on Mrs Taylor’s great achievement, which remains notable even if money was her main motivator. I found myself craving more of this dynamic woman’s story long after Queen of the Mist ended.
Queen of the Mist continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 5 October 2019 and tickets can be purchased at https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/queen-of-the-mist. Photo credits by Stephen Russell.
Tall Stories have become quite the specialist in transferring children’s books to stage, and their latest, The Gruffalo Live! is no exception.
The Lyric is normally the home of jukebox musical Thriller, a show that I have never felt the need to see, so the last time I was in the stalls here was probably in the 90s.
For The Gruffalo, surrounded by pre-schoolers and their parents, I decided that getting into the spirit of Julia Donaldson’s text was the best way to spend the hour.
With a detailed and atmospheric set of trees and logs, we find ourselves in the ‘Deep Dark Wood’ with Mouse, who just wants to find a tasty nut to eat.
She meets three predators on her travels, the spiv-like Mr Fox, uber-posh Captain Owl, and the vain Senor Snake. They are all interested in a morsel of mouse-lunch, but Mouse is off for lunch with a Gruffalo!
With audience participation: “there no such thing as a Gruffalo”, this moves fast and has a definite easy rapport with audience members large and small, just as they had years ago in Play School.
All three cast members are gifted actors, physical comics, and singers – Rebecca Newman as clever Mouse, Jake Addley as all the predators (necessitating lighting-quick changes, accents, and a lot of energy), and Elliot Rodriguez as Narrator/Gruffalo.
The Gruffalo is a delightful show with something for everyone: laughs, catchy songs, a bit of suspense, a bit of education, the little guys winning, and a big dumb monster (“I’m afraid of trains!”).
The Gruffalo continues into September with matinee performances each day at the Lyric.
The 1995 film is one of my all-time favourites, with an easy and passionate chemistry between stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
Now, under the direction of Trevor Nunn (who was in the house last night), the musical version by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman has set up shop at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Jenna Russell as Francesca and Edward Baker-Duly as Robert.
This story of middle-aged soulmates finding each other too late and for too short a time has lush melodies, but lacks the passionate aspects of the tale and clogs the show with too much extraneous material such as Francesca’s family at the fair, Robert’s waitress ex-wife, and a totally unnecessary opener to act two which has the feel of a country hoedown.
The Bridges of Madison County should sink or swim on the relationship between the Italian housewife who feels taken for granted and the freewheeling photographer who finds himself lost in her driveway: you don’t need anything else.
The songs are good, here and there, although I felt Russell struggled now and then with both the accent and some of the range. She also, sadly, lacked the yearning and emotion which should be present in Francesca, even we see in flashback how an early personal tragedy pushes her into a marriage of convenience.
Baker-Duly does better as Robert, although his portrayal is rather one-note, a bit cocky and far too like EE’s Kevin Bacon in his straggly hair and ever-present smile. He feels more calculating than conflicted, and I didn’t really engage with him until his final solo number.
Although there is undoubted talent in the character parts – Gillian Kirkpatrick as nosy neighbour Marge, Shanay Holmes as the ex-wife Marian who sings in her waitress uniform, Paul F Monaghan in fine blues voice as Charlie – the show still needs a judicious trim from 2 hours 45.
The set, by Jon Bausor, is far too complex, busy, and given to distracting noises at changeover and during quieter moments. It also requires half the audience to look over their shoulders for some scenes. Better, when you see through the clutter and the projections, is Tim Lutkin’s understated lighting design, full of warm purples and passionate reds.
Curious, too, was the absence of music in Francesca’s house. A woman of her ability to feel would not be content with just the weather report! I also felt the loss of key scenes between the leading couple that would make us care a bit more.
Ultimately, I wasn’t sure why this material has gone from novel and film to a stage musical. Nunn has form with the musicalisation of novels for the stage, but The Bridges of Madison County has more of the notorious 2008 production of Gone With The Wind about it than the mighty Les Mis.
The Bridges of Madison County continues at Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September. Photo credits by Johan Persson.
The Worst Witch books by Jill Murphy have passed me by a bit, so this musical adaptation by Emma Reeves about Mildred Hubble’s adventures at Miss Cackle’s academy was fresh and new for me.
Fast-paced and fun, this show has something for both the youngsters and the young at heart, as we head back to the day the disorganised Mildred found herself with the new batch of witches by mistake.
Dealing with the plotting of the devious Ethel, and finding friends in the studious Maud (Rebecca Killick) and the unconventional Enid, Mildred finds her first few months at Cackle’s a challenge, especially when it comes to casting spells, flying a broomstick, or dealing with an evil twin who threatens to destroy all they hold dear in the witches code.
As Miss Cackle (shades of Barbara Woodhouse of “walkies” fame) and her evil twin Agatha, Polly Lister proves to be a versatile scene-stealer, especially in their shape-shifting duet.
Danielle Bird is an excellent Mildred, whether essaying an awkward child, doing gymnastic contortions on a hoop suspended above ground, or crouching out of sight by the front stalls.
The band are also fun, especially the scatting Miss Bat (Molly-Grace Cutler), and Consuela Rolle and Rosie Abraham add a bit of interest with Enid’s audience participation and Ethel’s nasty attitude and magic transformations.
This is a joyous and lively show with good musical numbers composed by Luke Potter, traditional basic magic tricks, and a simple yet versatile set by Simon Daw of platforms, ladders and mysterious items in jars. There’s also some clever puppetry to evoke the feline familiars essential to every young witch.
The Worst Witch continues at the Vaudeville Theatre until 8 September and is directed by Theresa Heskins. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.
Jane Austen’s Sanditon would seem to be a major draw at the moment, despite being left unfinished. Andrew Davies has written a version which will premiere on television in 2030, and then there is this preview of a new stage musical by Chris Brindle and Vicky Clubb.
Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Studio downstairs at The Other Palace, we join Anna/Charlotte (Rebecca Huish) and her pop-rock band as a new idea is pitched to them, a concept album inspired by Jane Austen and her unfinished novel, Sanditon.
With a handful of excellent songs (especially Shallow, Opportunity and Nouveau Riche) and some excellent performances from Huish, director Angie Diggens with her fine harmonies, Amber Cayasso who raps and displays strength as a mixed-race woman of wealth in the 18th century, Elizabeth Brooks’s G&S vibe, Emily Bate’s period drama and William Hastings’s strong-voiced soundman, Sanditon shows a lot of potential, although the narration and pace of the second half still feels as if it needs a bit of work.
The band, including Clubb, Fern Teather, Sam Thurlow and Marcus Wood, work hard to convey a variety of styles from traditional pop to “pom pom” music hall, and Alex Terry adds a touch of the grotesque to his comedic characters.
I feel this musical may well expand to one with an interesting future, and it feels right as a small-scale actor-musician piece rather than a full West End production.
Last night’s one-off performance was professionally filmed so if you’re interested, you may be able to see it and make your own assessment. For both Austen fans and those open to new musical ideas, this was a definite hit, which also left the audience assessing how relevant Austen’s ideas and themes remain today.
The first European production of Max Vernon’s musical comes to Soho, and provides a story of time travel, understanding, companionship, community, hope, and catastrophe against the backdrop of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans (which was also referenced as part of the past of the lead character in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream, which I saw earlier this year).
In the dilapidated ruins of the upstairs bar, left vacant for too long, we see first see Buddy (John Partridge) light up the first of many cigarettes, before launching into song and then into the shadows. Instagram celebrity fashionisto Wes (Tyrone Huntley) arrives with the realtor to sign the deal on the place, but he struggles to see its potential.
While taking photos for his feed, the rest of the cast hover in the part-darkness, ghostly reflections of a time gone by, and eventually, Wes finds himself catapulted back from 2019 into the age of payphones, bath-houses, bell-bottoms, and gay invisibility.
The power in the play is that each character is given their chance to shine – Buddy, the pianist with a wife and children at home, with his period-perfect glasses and kerchief; Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), the butch with an Afro who rules her domain behind the bar; Willie (Cedric Neal), the “old queen” who once shone at the Ballet Russes because of his legs; Freddy (Garry Lee), the quiet construction worker turned drag queen with a dress made from curtains and a cardboard cock shooting out glitter; Freddy’s mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), whose dreams of coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico did not involve helping her son with his make-up; and Patrick (Andy Mientus), the teenage hustler.
The twin peaks of brotherhood and ostracisation are represented by the placid Jesus-loving Richard (Joseph Prouse) and angry, homeless outcast Dale (Declan Bennett), whose scenes underline the bond between the UpStairs patrons and their knife-edge relationship with others just outside that circle (the telling scene with the cop (Derek Hagen) who is quickly paid off to allow everyone to stay safe and keep their reputations intact is a good example of how the UpStairs Lounge is in its own little bubble, just as Wes is in his online space in 2019).
Wes’s presence clearly allows Vernon to bring in issues beyond those understood in 1973 – so not just hate crimes, gay-bashing, abuse, but the spectre of AIDS and the victory – of sorts – of becoming more accepted by some sections of society. Wes is a shallow and vain individual defined only by his followers and likes, but he slowly comes to understand the value of friendship and fellowship by interacting with each patron of the club. He also falls in love, perhaps for the first time, with Patrick, leading to some moving scenes between the two young men, reflecting on the differences in courtship and hook-ups across the forty-year time-gap.
The characters are of course, fictional, although the basic facts of the arson attack on the UpStairs are not – there was a man who visited each week, and was closeted, his family only discovering the truth when his body was found fused to that of his boyfriend; there was a house pianist (in fact two, Bud and David, both perished in the fire); there was a mother called Inez; and there was a man who burned to death trapped by the window bars, his body remaining there for a day afterwards, the church reverend who had led the service of hope and belonging earlier that evening.
The View UpStairs has catchy songs, both for ensemble and solo performers, and it has humour as well as political nous and moments that will make you gasp or find yourself in tears. The fire itself is evoked by lighting and movement, then by Patrick filling in the details as the final ghost standing in Wes’s new commercial space, the space which is finally filled with the images time and custom had forgotten for all those years.
This is a remarkable musical, with no mis-steps from any of the cast (Partridge, Neal, Huntley and Lee excel, but everyone is very good), and a fine house band led by musical director Bob Broad. Jonathan O’Boyle directs (and with some audience members on the stage as if they are non-player characters in the space that may be challenging), and Fabian Aloise choreographs a brilliant set of sequences which utilise the chairs, bar and every inch of the compact stage.
The View UpStairs continues at the Soho Theatre until 24 August 2019. I got an early-bird discounted ticket for the second row, but there are good sightlines across the space wherever you choose to sit.