Category Archives: musicals

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.

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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.

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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.


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.


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?

 


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.

 

 


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.


Company (Gielgud Theatre)

This reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical about a 35-year old man, Bobby, who juggles freedom with the wish of his married friends that he finds a lasting romance, makes Bobby become Bobbie, a woman dealing with the same preoccupations.

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Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie now has three boyfriends (Theo, Andy and P.J.) who have the trio You Could Drive A Person Crazy in Act One. Of the five couples who interfere with her life in the name of friendship, one are a gay couple planning their wedding, leading to the hilarity of Getting Married Today where a neurotic “Jamie” (Jonathan Bailey) panics about whether dependable Paul (Alex Gaumond) is the right man for him.

Sarah and Harry (Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes) constantly belittle each other, but in here there is love, too, as Harry explains in one of the great songs of the score, Sorry/Grateful, joined by David and Larry. Sarah is perhaps borderline bulimic, and Harry is a drunk, but their marriage can stand it because “everything’s different, nothing’s changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”.

Susan and Peter (Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell) find they are far better divorced than married; while Joanne and Larry (Patti LuPone and Ben Lewis) keep going as she is irritated by him and he is fascinated by her. In the original show, Joanne propositions Bobby, but here she offers her husband to Bobbie under a sugar daddy arrangement, which didn’t work in the same way for me.

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Patti LuPone as Joanne

Jenny and David (Jennifer Saayeng and Richard Henders) are square and settled, and humour Bobbie by smoking the joint she offers them, clearly signalling they are grown up enough to move on from all that, and she isn’t.

Bobbie wears killer red heels throughout, and we see her being used by geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young), who decides she isn’t marriage material, and by self-obsessed P.J. (George Blagden), who sees the universe revolving around him (Another Hundred People) rather than making any meaningful connection with others.

A night with dumb Andy (Richard Fleeshman) – formerly April the air stewardess – who has to fly off to Barcelona gives rise to a couple of surreal scenes, with the husbands of Bobbie’s friends visiting her bedroom while she is in coitus, and a dream sequence of many mirrored Bobbies and what could happen if she marries any of her three boyfriends.

The set is excellent, starting with a small lightbox that grows into a line of interconnected rooms, and some use of a box which rises from and sinks below stage level. Bobbie’s birthday balloons, too, become as small as in Alice in Wonderland, or are large as to be suffocating.

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Gavin Spokes as Harry, Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, Mel Giedroyc as Sarah

The songs do not survive the transformation intact: I was particularly sorry to lose the original, poignant lyrics of Someone Is Waiting, an Act One solo for Bobbie who considers how a combination of her friends may make the perfect mate for her. The same problem hampers Getting Married Today and Barcelona (mistaking Andy’s name for Freddy instead of April’s for June is not quite as funny).

There are compensations, though. Patti LuPone’s The Ladies Who Lunch lives up to expectations, Rosalie Craig’s Being Alive, which closes the show, is moving and effective, and the ensemble number Side by Side is livened up by a farcical bit of movement work.

I can’t get on board with the praise that has been lavished on this production to the point that “the original may never be done again”.

It’s an interesting experiment, and Marianne Elliott is to be congratulated on making it such fun and relevant to middle-aged women (and Sondheim himself for allowing and facilitating the changes to his exquisitely crafted songs), but for me, it didn’t quite come off.

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This remains my favourite Sondheim from a songs alone point of view, but I find that Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd all have a more coherent storyline. Company remains extremely cynical about relationships, and where for a man the concept of Have I Got a Girl [Guy] For You seemed acceptable laddish banter, when sung by women to another woman it just seems a bit sad.

Photograph credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Company continues at the Gielgud Theatre.


Eugenius (The Other Palace)

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This frenetic new musical from Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins takes its inspiration from comic books, 80s music and TV, and the perils of both childhood and Hollywood.

It makes a triumphant return to The Other Palace in advance of a well-deserved transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End at the end of October. (Update – as of 11 October this is no longer happening).

Eugenius tells the story of Eugene (Rob Houchen), a self-described geek who lives with his father and spends his spare time creating the story of Tough Man, Super Hot Lady, and the Evil Lord Hector.

His friends Janey (Laura Baldwin, previously on stage at The Other Palace in Big Fish) and Feris (Daniel Buckley, very funny) are equally viewed as odd by their peers: she has a secret crush on Eugene but he doesn’t seem to know it, and Feris is so consumed by teenage sexual fantasies he even laminates the comics he reads.

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Feris tries to impress the cool gang at school.

When a Hollywood producer’s lackey, Theo (Scott Paige, enjoyably camp) makes a trip into Eugene’s school to look for new ideas, Tough Man is pitched and then within a flash, taken to the city of dreams to be made into a film for Powermad Productions under the direction of Lex Hogan (Alex Bourne).

The trouble is, Hogan’s vision for the story leans more towards fish people and spandex airheads than the tale invisaged by young Eugene.

There’s another problem, too. Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott, EastEnders actor turned stage bad boy) is somehow not a product of Eugene’s imagination, but he’s real and after heading through space for years with only a perpetually cheery robot by his side (Kevin, voiced at the performance I saw by Mark Hamill), sees the film in progress and misidentifies the doltish actor Gerhard (Simon Thomas) as the real Tough Man.

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Super Hot Lady, Evil Lord Hector, Tough Man – photo by Scott Rylander

Hector channels a fair bit of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, while the actor playing the film Hector may just be based just a little on Laurence Olivier, but once the evil one lands on Earth he causes havoc for Hogan’s production.

Carrie, the actress playing Super Hot Lady (Emily Tierney, who has a knock-out dance number), almost falls for the adolescent pimply charms of the portly Feris, while Eugene learns that what’s most important in his life isn’t necessarily the need to “kiss ass”.

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The company of Eugenius

This hard-working company are flat out in fast-paced dance routines, but also give some love and heart to the most proposterous of characters.

It’s hard to single out any one member of the cast but apart from the main principals, I’d like to give a nod to Dillon Scott-Lewis who is a lithe and energetic dancer, and to Tom Senior’s Shock Jock.

The remainder of the cast are Christopher Ragland, Titus Rowe, Laurence Alex Tranter, Ben Darcy, Lauren Cancannon, Amy West, Sasha Wareham, and Alison Arnopp (Space Diva). And not to forget “the voice of Brian Blessed”, which is used to good effect.

With fun songs, audience participation, and silly cultural references, this show is a hard one to dislike. It has bags of heart and soul, and a vibrant message to all those grappling with growing up and life’s ambitions: “don’t shoot for the stars: shoot higher”.

Update: on 11th October it was announced that Eugenius will NOT be transferring to the West End due to the “withdrawal of a key investor”.


Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

I’m rather late to the party as Wasted closes tonight, the new rock musical about the Brontë siblings, who lived in the desolate moorland of Haworth, growing as creative forces who became – the three surviving sisters, anyway – novelists who are still talked about nowadays, women who wrote about topics such as obsession, adultery, and domestic violence which were considered unfeminine in the 19th century.

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We first meet Charlotte (Natasha Barnes) in 1855, in the last year of her life, introducing herself as “Mrs Arthur Nicholls, also Currer Bell, and Charlotte Brontë”, and carrying the child whose birth will kill her and itself.  Nicholls had long been the curate of Dr Patrick Brontë, parson and father of Charlotte and her sisters – Maria and Elizabeth, who died young, Emily (Siobhan Athwal) and Anne (Molly Lynch) – and her brother, Branwell (Matthew Jacobs Morgan).

The four surviving Brontë children are desperate to escape the stifling world of the parsonage and the bleak surroundings (Stuck in Haworth), and retreat into development of private worlds, which they document obsessively in mini-magazines.  Their refrain “We have to work, but we want to write” leads to their finding jobs away from home in young adulthood: while Branwell still dreams of being “a painter … a writer … a flautist … something” (I Am Gonna Be …), his sisters become teachers (Charlotte and Emily go to Brussels) and a governess (Anne goes to Thorpe Hall, near York).

The events at these places of work will inform the later work of Charlotte, who based her novel Villette (not her first to be rejected, as Wasted says: that was The Professor) on her infatuation with schoolmaster M Heger; and Anne, who turned her experience into her novel Agnes Grey.  Branwell joins Anne at Thorpe Hall and starts an affair with the lady of the house, and her eventual rejection of him turns him to drink and drugs (Laudanum My Love), which eventually hasten his death in 1848, shortly before sisters Emily, then Anne, die of consumption.

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Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte

This sequence of events, plus the development of all three sisters into gifted poets, then accomplished novelists, as the “Three Bells” (Currer, Ellis and Acton), is presented within the structure of a rock musical which manages to be clever, witty, inspired, and heartbreaking.  In the music of Christopher Ash and the lyrics of Carl Miller the story of the family is brought to life, including the infamous and dismissive letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte, Emily’s love for walks with her dog (a clever use of beatboxing to invoke the pup in My Soulmate), and Branwell’s sense of being invisible alongside his sister.

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Branwell painted himself out of his painting of his three sisters

With twenty-seven songs (including two variations and one reprise) across three and a half hours, there is bound to be an element of hit and miss, but for me this was simply a matter of audibility of lyrics in a couple of the heavier songs. The score is mainly sharp and varied, and the choreography is well-done, as is the use of microphone cables, paper, speakers, and metal cases as props.  We are really looking at a bare wooden thrust stage with four performers, and a four person band at the back, but it becomes alive with activity, plot and performance.

However some songs – White Violets (a duet between Charlotte and Branwell, where they both contemplate finding first love), No-One to Marry for Miles (a witty song for Anne to bemoan the lack of eligible chaps in Yorkshire), (Ex)ordinary Woman (a powerhouse number for Charlotte and her sisters to showcase their heroines and feminist stories), Before My Time (a bit of fun for Goth Emily) and The Story of Mrs Collins (an eventual rock-out number for Anne about a woman who surely inspired her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) – stand out and are memorable in their own right.

Barnes is the stand-out performer, with an enviable set of pipes and a good grasp of the elder sister who watches, grieves, and eventually “wastes” her life on marriage to the dull curate (“the wrong one”, as her siblings remind her, referring to the choice facing her creation, Jane Eyre).  Athwal may overdo the eye-rolling and wildness of Emily, but she is tempered by the mild Lynch’s Anne.

Branwell may get the worst of the bargain here, being described in the programme as the “Pete Best” of his Beatles family.  That Morgan makes him likeable even when mimicking an injection of drugs, or in attempting to silence his sisters as he is the “genius” of the family shows a gift in acting, although dismissing the Brontë brothers as “talentless” and his work as “crap” feels unnecessarily cruel.

An excellent and thought-provoking new musical, nevertheless.

 


Sylvia (Old Vic)

Note that the entire run of this new musical is now being classed as previews, and that the Old Vic are handing out notices stating “it has radically evolved into what promises to be a genuinely thrilling full-blown musical … the performance … is considerably longer and in a more raw state than the creative team and The Old Vic would ever have planned … what we are sharing with you today is a work in progress”.

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The Pankhursts

There has been drama right from the start of the run, when the original first preview was changed into an open dress rehearsal, which was then cancelled part-way through as actress Genesis Lynea (who played Sylvia Pankhurst) was taken ill.  Her understudy, Maria Omakinwa, has now taken over the leading role for the remainder of this short run, with a minimum of rehearsal time.  Hats off to her.

Running at more than three hours, including interval, this show needs a fair amount of brutal trimming, as well as a focus which perhaps does not include too much stage time for Sylvia’s sister Christabel (Witney White).  I was also unconvinced about the relationship portrayed between Sylvia and the Labour Party leader Keir Hardie: this has been rumoured in some accounts but is in no way confirmed.  More problematic is the brief reference to a lesbian relationship between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, again a rumour which the writers should have the nerve to expand upon if they wish to do justice to it.

Kate Prince, who heads the ZooNation company, and who is behind the book and lyrics for this musical, has tried to address the issue of casting black actresses as Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, and black actors as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, in the name of diversity.  It feels a similar casting quirk that Hamilton has had success with, as is the use of hip hop music and dancing, but I felt that the character of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother as a bossy Red Hot Momma (although Jade Hackett blew the roof off the place) was particularly problematic.

There’s just too much going on, and even as someone who knows the story of the struggle for Women’s Suffrage, I felt a little lost and bored at times.  The sequence with Emily Wilding Davison and her death at the Epsom Derby is 1913 was lost in confusion, although the song which followed immediately after was a high point.  The prison-based depiction of force-feeding was rushed and flawed, and short-changes the issue which went on for more than five years and caused declining health to many women.  For a more in-depth treatment of both I can recommend the television serial Shoulder to Shoulder.

Making the opposition, and particularly Churchill, comedic, is also an aspect which doesn’t quite come off.  Here you have on one side the measured performances from Omakinwa, from Beverley Knight as Emmeline, and from Carly Bawden as Mrs Churchill (Bawden also portrays Kenney), but then you have the over-broad ones from Delroy Atkinson as Churchill and, to some extent, from John Dagleish as Keir Hardie (with red scarf, tie and long socks proclaiming his political affiliation).

The songs are a mix of funk, soul and hip-hop, and the movement and dance sequences are certainly energetic and inspiring, right from the point that Elliotte Williams-N’Dure’s General Flora Drummond exorts the gathering to “make some noise”.  There are just too many songs, and as much as I enjoyed Clementine Churchill’s break-out letter to the newspaper, the letters from the Pankhurst siblings Christabel, Adela and Harry to their imprisoned sister, or Sylvia’s lovestruck memories of seeing Hardie as she grew up, they don’t really push the plot along.

I wanted to see and hear more about Sylvia Pankhurst, who is often hidden in the shadows of her more militant sister and mother, and what drove her to support the working woman’s cause.  I wanted to see more following her break from the WSPU.

As a woman from the same town as Annie Kenney, I was disappointed that she was simply there to make eyes as Christabel, when she had so much more to offer to the history of the movement. She was a strong working woman from a mill town who joined with the middle-class ladies: if you don’t want to give her that credit, don’t use the character.  The use of Ada to composite several women in the movement would allow one of Sylvia’s friends and mentors to be depicted instead of Kenney.

Ultimately this show is nowhere near ready for a full run, and although Omakinwa is doing a great job, she is still using the book heavily in the second act and reading her lines in key scenes including the aforementioned one of force-feeding and a two-header argument with her mother, which would have great power had she been interacting with Knight fully.

This show does have great potential, and has some excellent moments, but there are too many technical issues present at the moment, and too much going on to really focus on the story or engage with the characters, for this to be a true success.  However, I look forwatd to seeing how it evolves and whether it does have a future.

 


The King and I (London Palladium)

A glorious revival of one of the greats of the American Songbook has taken residence at the Palladium, in a perceptive production directed by Bartlett Sher.

The leading principals, Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara, have enviable chemistry and an ear for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious score and lyrics.

With the original book draft plundered for new and apposite political references, and culturally appropriate casting, this show obtains a sense of new relevance, especially in the Act Two showpiece The Small House of Uncle Thomas (“written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe”).

This fits the narrative of the Burmese girl, Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon, in a mature and heartbreaking performance) torn from her home and lover in Burma and sold in sexual and emotional slavery to the King.

This King, though, struggles with the traditions which revere him close to a deity, allow his subordinates to grovel in supplication, and give him many wives and children; and a thirst for modernity and knowledge.

Into this mix comes Anna Leonowens, a widowed schoolteacher, who comes to teach the children (and it transpires, some of the wives too) about Western facts and ways.

How much influence the real Anna had on the Siamese King is up to question, but in this fictionalisation a grudging respect and affection develops within the pair, the curious King and the feisty Anna.

Head wife Lady Thiang understands that change is necessary, but also understands her husband – Naoko Mori’s rendition of Something Wonderful is as touching as O’Hara’s Hello Young Lovers as an anthem of knowing devotion.

This is a sumptous production with a talented supporting cast of youngsters and an excellent orchestra. Don’t miss.

The King and I continues at the London Palladium until the 29th September 2018.


Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

“It’s impossible to imagine how a musical could be more epic” is one of the taglines of this new hybrid of rock musical and serious literary references which has charged into the Arts Theatre until 26 August.

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The House of Rose (not York or Lancaster, you’ll notice, this is some kind of medieval house where another kingdom is just around the corner) is ruled by a King and Queen in their dotage, with their heir, Prince Gawain, and daughter, Princess Hannah.

They also have a ‘Lady’ Isobel who seems to have joined their family somehow, and one Horatio who I swear said at one point he was an illegitimate son of the House, but he is the devoted servant of Gawain even though they love the same woman.

In the meanwhile the other Knights include the wet but decent Lord Hugo and the fiery Lord Palamon, and both want the Princess, although the battle and tension between them that should arise from this psychological conflict is not really explored, and is weakly resolved in Act Two.

Then there’s John the messenger boy, who acts as narrator/chorus at various points, and a couple of servant girls who have potential in their characters but remain undeveloped.

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This show tries to shoehorn in some classic rock songs as the plot progresses, but they are forced in with such ineptitude that the audience doesn’t know whether they should be laughing or not (one example of a character saying “would you dance, if I asked you to dance” to lead into the song “Hero”), and by Act Two there is a whole run of questionable creative choices starting with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” over the body of one of the fallen Knights and ending with a bizarre staging of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

The singers are very impressive though, with Andy Moss as Gawain, Oliver Savile as Hugo, Chris Cowley as Palamon, Matt Thorpe (excellent rock vocals) as Horatio and Ruben Van Keer as John as the brave and testosterone-heavy Knights, while the ladies (Katie Birtill, Rebekah Lowings and Bleu Woodward) do a spirited version of “Holding Out For a Hero” in Act One.

Adam Pearce as the King also surprises with the heart-rending lament from the opera “King Arthur” in Act Two, but this whole sequence sticks out like a sore thumb and simply confuses, as did the reprise of “Bed of Roses” from the royal couple in their garden.

I would have liked more numbers which treated the plot with folk material (“Turn Turn Turn” did well), and with more tightly choreographed pieces – there’s one in each Act, which do have the sense of epic fire we were promised.

Also follow through on those relationships and tangled loyalties which would put meat on the show’s bare bones and give these characters much needed emotional investment for an audience – it is to the credit of the actors that we can engage now and then with their dilemmas, but it is frustrating to have to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Ultimately this feels like a show still in workshop mode which doesn’t know whether it wants to include rock songs ironically (like “Rock of Ages”), or whether to present the plot as musical comedy (like “Spamalot”). Quoting – or rather misquoting – Shakespeare and a whole host of other luminaries to make up for a weak book is not enough, and this needs a lot more thought to really succeed.

My thanks to Premier PR for arranging the tickets to Knights of the Rose.


DVD audit 2018 – part 2

More titles from the collection. Film, TV, documentaries, music. There’s more to come!

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DVD audit 2018 – part 1

By no means my entire collection, here is a peek at some of the films and TV series which make up my DVD collection.

Check back for more and for some book shelfies during the next few weeks.


Chess (again), Coliseum Theatre

Now, you may recall that last week we took a visit to see one of my all-time favourite musicals, Chess, and that it was not an entirely enjoyable experience as our upper circle seats were most definitely ‘restricted’ although not sold as such.  The show was fantastic, as I expected, so I took a very rare decision to pay for a more expensive ticket, and revisit the show to see what I was missing.

I’ll talk a bit about pricing at the end of this piece.

The difference between viewing the show from a seat in the upper circle, row J, in the central block, and a seat in the dress circle, row E, at the side, is like night and day.  In the case of this production of Chess, the effect is like watching a completely different show from a design point of view.

Just look at the difference here; last week’s view first, then last night’s view.

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The ENO’s annual musical has become a big event of limited runs: we have had Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, Carousel, and now Chess.  These are generally big productions with star names, and for the last two years, they have been fully staged.  None of these were ‘new’ musicals to me, and in fact all have been long-time favourites, and Chess is no exception.

I talked a bit about the casting for Chess last week.  Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball has been cast as the Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky.   Rock singer and musical star from Canada, Tim Howar, is the American champion, Freddie Trumper (an unfortunate surname right now with the current President).  Actress/singer Cassidy Janson, who has led in small musicals and covered in larger ones, is Florence Vassy, Freddie’s second and girlfriend of seven years.  X Factor winner turned musical belter Alexandra Burke is Svetlana Sergievska, the wife of Anatoly and mother of their son Ivan.  Phillip Browne is the Russian second, Molokov, a KGB operative and a sinister bass. Cedric Neal comes from Broadway and a leading role in Motown the Musical to portray The Arbiter, the judge and referee of the Chess Federation tournaments we see.

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In the last post I referred to the casting drama during rehearsals which saw Neal brought in at short notice to take over the role (hard on the voice, but underwritten).  There was an additional event which affected the first preview, when Tim Howar’s wife gave birth to their son Hamish during Act One, which meant the understudy had to take on Act Two (including the big solo number, Pity The Child, and some tricky moments of recitative).  There have also been reports of Michael Ball missing some lines in the Endgame number which has all the principals together for the last time, but no such problem was present last night (although his “Frederick, thank you” in the close of The Deal/No Deal number has now switched to “Freddie”).

So what’s ‘new’ if you are in the lower levels?

First off, there is a platform which comes up during key scenes, and this is located in the pit, where the orchestra is usually based.  Honestly, from the upper circle last week I had no clue this was even there, nor did I realise that some of the chess board set design was made up of steps which allowed some characters to exit quickly or for technicians to nip under the stage to set up the next scene or the video projections.

Second, without a clear view of the front of the stage you miss around half of the choreography of The Soviet Machine, roughly a third of One Night in Bangkok, and you are unable to see the chorus behind the screen in The Story of Chess, or the chorus based under the platform during the chess games.  This does a great disservice to the hard working singers and dancers who deliver the layered melodies and high energy movement the ensemble numbers require.

This time I hardly glanced at the video projections (which are sometimes mirror images of the same scene in close-up, but sometimes seem to be there just so you can see what is going on – for example, in Burke’s two solo numbers, in Janson’s two solo numbers, and -with some synch problems last night – for Howar’s big Act Two number).  I found them distracting in the major duets I Know Him So Well and Mountain Duet, as that by definition requires two people to be shown, and the screens seemed superfluous.

In other places they are used well – the plane arrival in Merano, the fire-breathing dragons in One Night in Bangkok in front of which acrobats and aerial contortionists perform, the chess games (although, rather than 1960s headlines about the space race, it might be fun to show us the actual moves, assuming they are not just random!), and the explanatory pictures about the history of the game and former champions.

Last night I could watch close-up, on the stage itself, what was going on.

I still can’t find any emotional engagement with Svetlana – she appears briefly early on in the show, and then we don’t see her again until the end of Act One, in which we are supposed to empathise with her delivery of Someone Else’s Story.  This song was written for the character of Florence (in the original Broadway production), and still makes more sense, as she finds one relationship collapsing as another begins.

Neither female character is fully drawn, but I find Florence an interesting one.  She is Hungarian-born and living in the US, with a self-centred lover who treats her as an accessory, although she’s fiery in support for him when we first see them.  Why she’s stayed so long, and why she suddenly bails to join with a refugee from a country she hates, is not explored sufficiently, nor the reasons this Russian leaves his family for a new life in the West.   Janson seems to make Florence fluffy in love by the time we get to Heaven Help My Heart, which makes the You and I duet between her and Anatoly bittersweet by its conclusion.  Perhaps the implication is that Freddie’s drinking and coke sniffing had made him less exciting between the sheets than the focused Russian!

Svetlana has another song which opens Act Two, a translation of the Swedish production’s song He Is A Man, He Is A Child, which is a towering ballad for a character we don’t really know.  But without those two songs, it isn’t much of a part, regardless of the engagement the audience would have with her.  Burke does well enough and is very good indeed in Endgame, and she’s a hard woman to return to, for sure.

Michael Ball probably wouldn’t have been my first choice for Anatoly, but with his spectacles and air of concentrated ennui, he does convince – and the songs, Where I Want To Be, Anthem, and the duets previously mentioned, are delivered well, without too much of the vibrato that has characterised his recent collaborations with Alfie Boe.  Hopefully we will see him in some more mature musical roles as time progresses.  Anatoly, though, is a difficult proposition for any actor – he appears emotionless, he hates the West and everything Freddie Trumper represents, then beats him in the championship and steals his girl.  It’s to the credit of the writers and the actor that we still feel some connection with him, and don’t dismiss him as a selfish sot.

Freddie is another conundrum – clearly focused on the game of chess, but highly-strung and feted (and behaving) like a rock star, from the moment he touches down in Merano.  His songs range from massive power force fields like Pity The Child to cynical rap in One Night in Bangkok.  He throws things around and hurts people who get close to him; he is by no means the confident front he puts on.  It’s a tough part because it isn’t the one which gets the natural audience sympathy, but he’s always been my favourite character in Chess, and he’s pitched just right in this, with a redemption arc in The Deal/No Deal which might, despite Florence’s pointed look during the TV interview which opens Endgame, lead to some form of reconciliation for them.

The ensemble numbers are absolutely fine, and well done, and from close-up they were very enjoyable.  The orchestra from the ENO is conducted by John Rigby, and musical director is Anders Eljas, who has been involved with the musical since square one, doing the original orchestrations, and what a glorious sound they make.  As for the ensemble, let’s have a shout out for the pop choir trio Jordan Lee Davies, Sinead Lang and Alexandra Waite-Roberts, and associate choreographer Jo Morris, although all are excellent.

I mentioned the pricing.  The upper circle pricing is £65-80, and the dress circle will cost you over £100 for a ticket.  I hear that there are rush tickets for £25 through TodayTix for weekday performances, so this would seem to be the future of such shows – eye-watering prices for committed fans, and cheap tickets for casual ones.  I find this a worrying trend as a theatre obsessive, and one who nearly always puts hand in pocket for pre-discount prices.  If I visited a show on a cheap ticket or a comp, I would tell you.  It’s a rare occurrence, but if you are in the happy position to not have to plan your visits to a show until the day itself, it’s an option to play the discount lotteries.

Chess continues for another three weeks.

 

 

 

 

 


Hayley Sprout

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