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.
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.
Previous cast of The Worst Witch
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.
A trip to Barons Court to see a Sondheim musical in LAMDA’s Summer Season was just the ticket this week, although I regret that I missed the chance to see two student productions of Merrily We Roll Along (the Guildhall School presented it at their Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican earlier this month, and it passed me by).
William Robinson, Mercedes Assad, Scarlett Courtney, Olivia Le Anderson, Stuart Thompson and Chloe McClay
Still, it is a musical I haven’t seen live at all, so I really looked forward to see what LAMDA’s graduating class had done with it.
Merrily We Roll Along was a failure on its first appearance, a rare misstep for Sondheim and director Hal Prince – over the years, though, many of its songs have had multiple recordings by major artists and regular revivals have made it an affectionately regarded, if minor musical.
Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson, Ryan Burch, Scarlett Courtney and Esme Scarborough
This “class of 2019” are a talented bunch – in leading roles we have Colm Gleeson (Frank, arrogance personified at the start, idealistic at the end), Sam Stafford (Charlie, sweet in Good Thing Going), Esme Scarborough (Mary, the glue that binds the Old Friends), Scarlett Courtney (Beth, spiky yet fragile in Not a Day Goes By), Chloe McClay (Gussie, the vamp) and Ryan Burch (Joe, whose plot trajectory is in reverse of Frank’s), and they are very good indeed.
Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson and Mercedes Assad
On the fringes in smaller parts are Stuart Thompson (who was awarded the Sondheim Society Performer of the Year for 2019), Liam King (fun as Beth’s southern dad), Mercedes Assad (a fiery TV anchor), and Olivia Le Anderson (the unfortunate Meg in the first scene).
Joshua Eldridge-Smith, Michael Kosko, Ell Potter (fun, briefly, as Charlie’s wife Evelyn), Ivan du Pontavice, and William Robinson form the rest of the company, all gifted in voice and movement.
Company of Merrily We Roll Along
Based on a 1930s play which used the same reverse chronology, Sondheim’s musical (and George Furth’s book) takes us from 1976 back to 1957, to see how the choices of Franklin Shephard shaped his life and made him the Hollywood success we see at the opening party.
Far more effective than a straightforward rise and fall story, it closes with perhaps the best-known song fron the production, It’s Our Time, which resonates both with the young characters we see here and the actors at the start of their careers.
Directed by Caroline Leslie, designed by Mila Sanders, and accompanied on solo piano and occasional percussion by Joe Beighton – all LAMDA staff members – this is an enjoyable piece which has its final performances today.
I look forward to seeing what this group of performers do in their future engagements.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s clever rock opera is now approaching its fiftieth birthday, and yet has lost none of its power as it depicts the last few days in the life of Jesus.
Ricardo Afonso as Judas
This production was first seen at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park a couple of years ago, and has now come indoors with a new principal cast at the Barbican Theatre.
I’m very familiar with the 1973 film, the original concept recording, the 90s stage version (later filmed), and most recently, the arena version.
A pulsing score and thoughtful – if occasionally dated – lyrics bring the story to life, especially the tense relationship between a Jesus who loses confidence as the cult around him grows and a Judas who watches with concern and incredulity until he is compelled to betrayal for thirty pieces of silver.
Robert Tripolino as Jesus, Sallay Garnett as Mary
You know the plot. This production opens with a dancer who almost conjures a feel of black magic, before she is joined by the fervent followers. Judas and Jesus have to have the charisma and powerhouse vocals to carry both the drama and the music, and in Ricardo Afonso and Robert Tripolino those roles are more than adequately filled.
Utilising hand-held microphones which are sometimes passed from one character to another, sometimes used as plot props (bound in the hands of Jesus at trial, thrown down by Pilate, dropped with a long trail of red wire at the death of Judas), sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but it is a different approach to shackling main characters with radio mikes.
Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar
Sallay Garnett’s Mary is the strong prostitute you would expect her to be, but I didn’t feel her vulnerability until the trial scenes. Matt Cardle’s Pilate,first seen smoking and crushing a beer can, exudes Roman bravado, but completely breaks under the realisation he’s been used just as much as Judas: his vocals are absolutely fine, too, especially in his final couple of lines.
Samuel Buttery as Herod
Also of note are Cavin Cornwall’s menacing and deep-voiced Caiaphas, Samuel Buttery’s drag queen Herod with his long eyelashes, gold cape, and air of genial menace, and Tim Newman’s Simon.
Tom Scutt’s design is deceptively simple – a platform, some arches, galleries for the band to play in and characters to observe from, some trees, and recurring cross motifs which are particularly effective in the temple scene.
Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar
Timothy Sheader’s direction and Drew McOnie’s choreography perfectly complement the score, and although I missed the hand-held cameras that used to bring us close to the cruxifiction, there are new innovations I do like, and moments of closeness, clarity and even humour (the freeze frame of the Last Supper) that make this show as relevant as it has ever been.
Two images that stood out for me: Judas with silver paint on his hands after the betrayal, and Jesus being taken from the cross and removing his crown of thorns in a kind of tired and resigned resurrection.
This is an important revival of a modern classic. Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Barbican until 24 August, and if you’re so inclined, you can see the other Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals in London this summer, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, and Evita opening soon in Regent’s Park.
The London transfer of the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan comes to St Martin’s Lane with lots of cheesy energy, chock-full of hits from Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine.
The rather thin plotline follows the young Gloria as she performs in her community, before growing up to catch the attention of Emilio, at this point playing weddings and the like with little success.
The company of On Your Feet
Although she sings “Anything for You” at her audition (complete with a section where all the other observers leave the stage, letting the young couple have their ‘love at first sight’ moment), the Machine is strictly Latino and pitched at that market.
Gloria’s home life consists of a mother who had performed, successfully, in Havana, now resenting her daughter’s ambition; a father sick with MS and mute except in flashbacks and one dream sequence where he gives his child advice; and a younger sister who isn’t sharply enough defined for us to get a sense of her.
Christie Prades as Gloria Estefan
With these is Consuelo, the tough grandma who also provides the comic relief as well as key support for Gloria as she builds her career. I liked her scenes, but it’s a trope we have seen so many times before, the helpful granny.
The music is good, and the production values are high in terms of lighting and effects – the set is mainly a series of sliding platforms to keep the action moving.
George Ioannides and Christie Prades as the Estefans
Act one closes with dancing in the stall aisles and “Conga”, before a pace change in the second half with Gloria’s road accident and rehabilitation. For me this slowed the pace too much for what has been marketed as a show which will get you “On Your Feet” and presumably keep you there!
As the Estefans have had a long and happy marriage, there’s nothing much to exploit there in the way of conflict, and other than their record label declining to support “Dr Beat” or put money into their albums, there’s little sense of the obstacles faces by a Latino group crossing over into a white market (other than a great joke about Sweden feeling like “a land of dancing cotton buds”).
Christie Prades and company of On Your Feet
For all the high energy of this piece, it is a jukebox musical with a sliver of story, and if you paid full price for your tickets you may feel a little disappointed. Look around for the many discounts available and you may feel you have more value for money.
Gloria Estefan is played by Christie Prades, who gets the singer’s mannerisms and vocal patterns just right. Emilio is George Ioannides, who did well with an underwritten role (and a slightly troublesome microphone). Madalena Alberto (who was in AspectsofLove earlier in the year) is Gloria’s mother, and Karen Mann is Consuelo.
On Your Feet continues at the London Coliseum. Tickets are available throughout the remainder of the run, but shop around for the best prices.
To reach The Vaults performance space you venture down the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street, then into one of the arches and through an unsteady route to the bar.
Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera
Bare: a Pop Opera isn’t on in the theatre, but instead in an extension of the bar space with a long stage in the shape of a T. From my section, the ‘red’ seats (the perks of the press), there isn’t much turning required to see everything, but the cheaper ‘yellow’ section must miss bits or see a lot of backs of heads.
So, settling down on a plastic chair with the rumble of trains passing from Waterloo, the set I see is simple – religious paintings, chairs, a tree. The lights are purple, there are church chants. We’re in a Catholic school with teenagers about to graduate – Peter, Jason, Ivy, Matt, Nadia and others.
Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason
Over the next two and a half hours we watch them pray, party, fall in love, struggle with their identities, and eventually deal with the catastrophe of a loss they can only just comprehend.
Songs (by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo) and scenes stand out – Nadia, a little large, who wants to be pretty (she is, reminding me of Mama Cass); Peter, trying to confide in his mum over the phone (“his father will die … where was the warning?”); Matt, who loves Ivy, but she looks right through him: Ivy, outwardly confident but “only a girl”; and Jason, our Romeo who wants things “best kept secret”.
Lizzie Emery as Ivy
There’s the sister, too (Stacy Francis), appearing in a dream like a Supreme as the Virgin Mary, then reminding Peter that as conflicted and ashamed as he may be for loving another boy, “God don’t make no trash”. The priest is less helpful, preaching doctrine that it is best “not to question”.
This show has had a long genesis – it debuted in 2000 in Los Angeles and eventually evolved into Bare: the Musical in 2012. The original version, which we see here at The Vaults, feels timeless, without the clutter of social media or the opening out of the book.
Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy
Bare: a Pop Opera is almost completely sung-through, with more than thirty songs of different types. For me, the second act was stronger with less ensemble numbers (the sound in the venue is a problem with multiple singers), but there are fine performances throughout.
The use of Romeo and Juliet as a framing device, the end-of-term play, gives a chance for the Queen Mab speech to be incorporated, and the suicide by poison, this time for the love of a boy.
Romeo and Juliet sequence
Parallels with Spring Awakening feel inevitable, but I feel that had a more focused book throughout (although Bare, with its tree and pictures of children who struggled too long with their sexuality and perceptions of others, has the more emotional ending).
Julie Atherton’s direction makes the most of the stage space available – although there is at least one scene change that drags – and in the cast there are several young names to watch: Daniel Mark Shand (Peter), Georgie Lovatt (Nadia), Tom Hier (Matt) especially impressed me, but the whole cast are good.
Bare: a Pop Opera continues at The Vaults until 4 August.
A hybrid of opera and musical theatre, The Light in the Piazza is based on an old Hollywood film and sets a complex love story among the ruins and sites of Florence.
The Royal Festival Hall isn’t known for staging musicals, and it is easy to see why – with no flies, wings or ubiquitous revolve, opportunities for set and staging are limited, and the hall is best utilised for classical concerts or semi-staged operas.
Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza
Here, the set is dominated by a huge plaster statue of a headless naked man’s bottom, and a cut-down snippet of set with a staircase, doors, archway, and a small space which is utilised for anything from a hotel room, art gallery and church to a tourist square, pavement cafe and briefly, Rome.
The cast is headed by opera superstar Renee Fleming as protective mum Margaret – I felt she didn’t quite fit her character early on but her singing was wonderful and as the character softened and we had an insight into her dead marriage back home (telling and brief scenes from Malcolm Sinclair) we warmed to her.
Dove Cameron plays Clara, mid-twenties and emotionally underdeveloped due to a childhood trauma (it felt for ages that the problem may have been terminal illness, as Margaret’s explanation to the audience comes late). Cameron is best known for her work for Disney, including the Descendants film series. Her high soprano didn’t quite click for me, but she acted well in a difficult role, depicting a girl finding romantic love for the first time.
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen
Rob Houchen, a new name to me, is Fabrizio, the Florentine who falls so head over heels for Clara he sings an impassioned aria about her – in Italian! He has a glorious voice, although in his scenes he is saddled with speaking in broken English.
Alex Jennings plays his father, with better English due to his work with American authorities during the war. He’s an urbane shop owner with a wife (Marie McLaughlin) stereotypical Italian until she breaks the fourth wall in act two to tell us what her family are talking about in scenes which verge on comedy, and older son (Liam Tarne) who neglects his flighty wife (the scene-stealing Celinde Schoenmaker).
Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen
The score, by Adam Guettel, is not that memorable, sadly, but is performed well – including solos for Fleming, Cameron, and Houchen, and duets for Fleming/Cameron, Cameron/Houchen and even Fleming/Jennings. The orchestra of Opera North do well, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, even if they over-dominate that vast stage.
View from front stalls.
The Light in the Piazza feels swamped in such a large space, even with the top level closed. I was lucky enough to secure my seat for half the price, but could have paid a lot less. Pricing this as a top-flight West End show when it is effectively a semi-staging feels too ambitious, and show would surely have more emotional impact in a more intimate space.
Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.
From my seat in the front stalls I did feel engaged and involved, but in the back row the experience would be very different. Kudos to director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones for bringing a bit of Italian magic to this cavernous stage, although the ensemble were limited to bits of movement and dancing on that staircase.
Having grown up with the war film The Man That Never Was, I’m familiar with the basic facts of the operation which allowed British forces to hit back against the Nazi occupation by duping the enemy over Sicily.
The company of Operation Mincemeat
Here, creative company SpitLip have created a musical about this very operation, which manages to be both irreverent (to the Germans, the British, and even a sole American airman) and respectful to those living through and lost in war.
Men play women (notably office secretary Hester, whose love letter is a small masterpiece, “why did we meet in the middle of a war … the roses miss you”), and women play men (a wonderful Montagu, all bluster and physical posturing, including top hat and high kick finale), but this company of five are adept at quick character metamorphosis throughout.
The company of Operation Mincemeat
Charles Cholmondely is a geek who loves insects, a clumsy man whose limbs seem too large for his body, who dominates his scenes through his innate awkwardness. In two duets, one with the Montagu he idolises (“some were born to follow, but we were born to leave”), and one with young typist Jean, we see the measure of the man.
A Nazi jackboot song and dance heading up act two, a sleazy coroner who supplies bodies (“must have a head … must be a man”), a celebrity pathologist (music hall style), and even sultry club singer Velvet, all add to the colour of this accomplished show.
Board at New Diorama Theatre box office
The design of the show (by Helen Coyston, Sherry Coenen and Dan Balfour) utilises hanging telephones, blocks, lighting cues, and a small band of three slightly off to the side. Operation Mincemeat, a mix of comedy and glam, “Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train”, is an absolute triumph.
SpitLip are three members of comedy troupe Kill The Beast (David Cumming’s Cholmondely, Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, and Zoe Roberts’ Bevan), with composer Felix Hagan.
They are joined here by Joe Malone (Hester, US airman) and Rory Furey-King (Jean, Velvet), with Ellen O’Reilly and Lewis Jenkins completing the band.
Set design of Operation Mincemeat
Everyone involved should be proud of this superlative show. It closes today, but surely has a future, as do SpitLip‘s musical creations: more please!
This new Celtic folk musical by Jethro Compton (who also directs) and Darren Clark is currently running in the Southwark Playhouse’s Little, with a cast of five actor-musicians bringing F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to life.
Benjamin Button is born to Roger and Mary in 1919, appearing as a fully-formed seventy year-old man asking his father for a smoke. He is represented by a decrepit puppet with spookily lifelike legs.
The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mother can’t cope and finds her end from the cliffs. Father hides his ageing son in the attic, confident he will die soon, but Benjamin gets younger, stronger and sharper by the day.
When an unlocked door gives the sixty year-old Benjamin the “little bit of life” he craves, he’s down the pub for “just beer”, meeting the barmaid, Elowen, who becomes the love of his life.
James Marlowe and company
Weaving the story of “the backwards man” with the folk tradition, and a constant reminder of the days, minutes, seconds that have passed gives the piece heart and humour, and James Marlowe’s performance of a Benjamin who gets more youthful as those around him age – at 40 he is the same age as his wife, at 24 the same age as his son – is believable and touching.
The Cornwall sea is ever-present, with the cliffs, the ships, the walks, a letter in a bottle, a family tragedy, all taking place during Benjamin’s seven decades of life.
James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg
Space, too, with his assurance that a man will one day walk on the moon. And a white shawl, wore on a wedding day, to nurse children, to die in, to become the blanket for a baby in his last few days.
The small cast – as well as Marlowe, we have Matthew Burne, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg – evoke a variety of situations and characters (including two chains of events that change Benjamin’s life forever). The puppets of old Benjamin, his children, and the child Benjamin do not appear realistic, but nevertheless are full of life.
The lighting and smoke evoke the Cornish coast, and a broken clock reminds us of the vagaries of time. Stage and lighting design by Schonlatern, costumes by Cecilia Trano, and sound by Michael Woods all add to the effect.
At two and a half hours, this musical is a deeply engrossing, charming and moving piece of whimsical storytelling. A gem which will surely have a further life beyond this short run.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until the 8 June. Photo credits Jethro Compton Productions.
I slept on my review of this musical revival as I found it deeply moving in both its 30+ testimonies of lives cut short and the affirmation of “letting go” from those left behind.
Bill Russell’s sequence of poems and songs (set to music by Janet Hood and arranged here for piano – Henry Brennan- and cello – Pippa Mason) tells the stories of those lost to AIDS in the dark days of the 1980s.
The hedonist. The accountant who lapsed once. The caring nurse. The junkie. The Bible-basher. The shy boy welcomed home. The boy who went to New York for adventure.
The hemophiliac’s wife who lost her two children as well as her husband. The wife whose husband strayed and doomed them both. The lady who had a transfusion and found new friends stopped her feeling ashamed.
The diva with the camelia, veil and Mae West suggestion. The brother who was prevented from being buried with his lover until his sister intervened. The big spender.
The Vietnam vet who felt betrayed. The man who turned blame to hate. The sex worker who did naughty things. The girl who loved a boy in red.
Fraser Leigh Green and Matthew Grove in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
We meet these and more through the vignettes and the ten songs which punctuate them, notably My Brother Lived In San Francisco, I’m Holding On To You, I Don’t Do That Any More, and the closer Learning To Let Go (which had the cast breaking the fourth wall and made me tear up).
There is no plot as such, just each panel of the American memorial quilt being laid as the one in memoriam talks about their life. Set designer Justin Williams and lighting desigber Alex Musgrave have created a blank square space which becomes anywhere and everywhere, before settling into those memorial panels.
Ailsa Davidson in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
Watching and waiting is the sister who helped her brother spend forever with the man he loved, until, eventually she lays down her square.
Originally called The Quilt, this show continues to resonate, and is raising money in support for Make a Difference, a charity which supports those still living with HIV and AIDS.
This is the second show with lyrics by Bill Russell I have seen this year (the first was Side Show). I am very glad I accepted the invite to reacquaint myself with this incredible show, and to experience yet another new venue.
The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
I won’t single out anyone in the wonderful cast, directed with such flair by Bryan Hodgson. They are – Fraser Leigh Green, Michael Janssens, Marcus Ayton, Calum Culvin, Aidan Harkins, Chris Cahill, Althea Burey, Jackie Pulford, Jade Marvin, Charlie McCullach, Ailsa Davidson, Jade Chaston, Rhys Taylor, Paice Fenlon, Kristine Kruse, and Matthew Grove. All actors to watch in the future.
Elegies continues until 8 June. Do go if you can to show your support. If you wish to make a donation to Make a Difference you can do so here.
In their tradition of star-led revivals of classic musicals, the ENO have now brought Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s Man of La Mancha back into London, with American theatre and TV star Kelsey Grammer in the lead.
Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha
Although it is true that Grammer’s long runs in Cheers and Frasier have undoubtedly gained him fans in the UK, and his earlier musical forays into Big Fish (at The Other Palace) and A Christmas Carol (catch it annually, on TV) have proved a certain familiarity with the medium, some disquiet has been expressed with his stepping into the shoes of Placido Domingo, Richard Kiley, and, er, Peter O’Toole (although I liked him in the film) as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.
With the big numbers The Impossible Dream, Man of La Mancha, and Dulcinea, quite a burden is placed on Grammer who is clearly an average singer at best: still, his charisma and acting ability carries the difficult role of Cervantes telling the story of a weak-minded man who tilts at windmills and thinks his destiny is “to right the unrightable wrong”.
Kelsey Grammer and Cassidy Janson
The leading lady at this performance was Cassidy Janson, who I have seen before in Beautiful and Chess, and although she lacked a bit of the indignant fire brought to the role by Julia Migenes in the glorious album recording, she is effective at the “kitchen slut reeking with sweat” who eventually believes in that “impossible dream”, and she sings It’s All The Same well enough.
Add Peter Polycarpou (remember the original Bui-Doi in the 1989 Miss Saigon?) as devoted and comical Squire Sancho Panza, and Nicholas Lyndhurst (the Starkeeper from previous ENO production Carousel and long-time TV sitcom favourite) as a sinister leading prisoner and a drunken innkeeper, with a chorus of talented lesser roles, and you have a show worth watching, although it is in no way worth the top asking prices.
The company of Man of La Mancha
The opening, set in a jail pit reached by a lowered metal staircase, feels grim, but comes to life as Cervantes states “I will impersonate a man” and brings the tale of battle and chivalry to life to save his precious manuscript in a trial by his peers.
There are bits and pieces in this uneven musical that give away its age – the gang attack on Alonza is pretty horrible – but the score largely stands up, with moments of telling comedy in I’m Only Thinking Of Him and A Little Gossip, and effective orchestrations of those big numbers.
Cassidy Janson and company of Man of La Mancha
Man of La Mancha continues until 8 June, and is heavily discounting and offering upgrades if you’re tempted. For me I was glad to catch a fully-staged version (directed by Lonny Price) which at least tries to do justice to a musical which is often dismissed as a piece of history.
From the writers of South Park amd Avenue Q comes this irreverent and long-running musical, which has been in residence in London since 2013.
After the jaunty opening number, “Hello”, which includes the Mormon brand of smiles, faith, and eternal optimism, Elders Price and Cunningham are paired up and sent on their mission to Uganda.
This is resolutely un-PC stuff – even before the men board the plane someone dresses up to “sing like an African” in the style of The Lion King, and in residence, the villagers have a song to cope with their famine, disease, and pedophilia, which translates as “F*** You, God”.
Jesus doesn’t escape, either, with his blonde ringlets and white robe, stopping off on the days between Crucifixion and Resurrection to leave the third instalment of the Bible with a doomed people in the USA.
With a glittery song and dance number for the gay Mormon leader and his henchman, and a very sexualised baptism, this show does not shy away from the intent to shock; and a liberal scattering of expletives of the f and c word varieties seems primed to offend.
Still, this is very funny stuff, and in the leading Elders it has men you can root for – Price is self-centred and obsessed with Orlando, Cunningham is a sci-fi fanatic whose interpretation of the titular book stretches to including hobbits, the Starship Enterprise, and a tall tale involving the healing property of frogs.
The songs are all set to Broadway-style tunes, and range from solos for Price (“Mostly Me” and “I Believe”), Cunningham (“Man Up”) and the African girl whose name gets mangled as Jon Bon Jovi, Nutella, Neutrogena and No Deal Brexit (“Salt Lake City”) to the big ensemble numbers and even a show within a show (shades of Tuptim’s effort in The King and I).
If you are not easily offended, this show is a comic riot, well-performed and unapologetically filthy. The orchestra works hard, and the set design, although deceptively simple, manages to bring together a host of locations, including a bad taste version of Hell.
The Book of Mormon continues to run at the Prince of Wales. Judging by the enthusiastic reception it received at yesterday’s show, it won’t be closing any time soon.
The story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, sold to a side show as children but longing for normal lives, might not seem obvious material for a musical, but it works quite well here.
Victoria Jones and Sarah Lister in Side Show. Photo credit Stephen Brooks.
GLOC, an amateur theatre company based in Greenford, perform one large-scale musical a year, usually something that has been neglected – indeed there has only been one professional production of Side Show in the UK, at the Southwark Playhouse three years ago.
I first became aware of the Hilton sisters in the 1990s, when I saw them in the Tod Browning Hollywood film, Freaks. Despite the title, and the fact the film was banned for many years, it actually presents its cast of actors with disabilities and differences with some sympathy.
They were pretty and talented, and in more modern times may have been superstars, but work remained thin once vaudeville opportunities dried up. In the 1950s their story was fictionalised in an exploitation film, Chained for Life, and the twins ended their days working in a grocery store.
Side Show boasts a number of group numbers for the full cast, plus big voiced solos for minor characters like Jake (Matt Marchant, who effectively conveys frustration and affection for the twins), Terry (Mark Evans, who displays a vibrant vocal range), Houdini (Stefano Bassi, who also appears in chorus roles) and the twins themselves.
Dream sequences jostle with reality, with a lot of humour running through the piece, as the twins find their independence, reach for a bit of happiness, and then reconcile with the fact the world just sees them as curiosities.
Matthew Pimm’s director and choreography could put a number of professional productions to shame, and if there were a couple of microphone mishaps, these were easily overlooked with the excellent lighting and accomplished band led by Ken Williams.
Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s songs are very good, and this musical deserves a bit more recognition, as do Daisy and Violet Hilton – here they are represented as women with the same dreams, emotions and ambitions as anyone else.
Side Show might be ripe for a professional revival, given the success of The Greatest Showman, which also features bearded ladies and the like. But while we wait, this production is on until Saturday at Ealing’s little theatre jewel, so go if you can.
Glenn Chandler’s witty piece about Boulton and Park, their cross-dressing, and their trial on charges relating to publc decency, returns to the Above the Stag following a successful run in 2015.
If there is any doubt about the subject matter of Fanny & Stella, or the spirit in which the evening will unfold, it is quickly dispelled with the group ditty “Sodomy on the Strand”.
Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles in Fanny and Stella.
Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles in Fanny and Stella.
With a music hall flourish and a large dose of swish, leading “he-she ladies” Tobias Charles (Fanny) and Kieran Parrott (Stella) evoke the spirit of the broadminded theatre of the 19th century, where one could even be unofficially contracted to an MP and carry cards to that effect.
Fanny, played with a bitchy charm by Charles in his professional debut, is the more confident of the pair, while Stella (despite planting a tree with every lover – “have you been to Epping Forest”) shows rather more vulnerability at times. They refer to each other as “dame” and “sister” and display expensive tastes in clothing.
Kieran Parrott and Blair Robertson in Fanny and Stella.
With songs like “Has Anyone Seen My Fanny” the tale, supposedly told by the pair themselves in performance at the Bermondsey Working Men’s Club, relies on fruity language and innuendo. There are also more traditional-style numbers – where Stella’s mother (also Charles) has her own song, and where Stella finds her Scottish freedom, however fleetingly, in “Walk Me Up The Street”.
Chandler’s spicy lyrics about “unmentionable” things, with Charles Miller’s music, rattle along well with the accompaniment of musical director Aaron Clingham.
Mark Pearce in Fanny and Stella.
In a small company there are numerous opportunities for character parts – panto regular Mark Pearce is very good as a Scots landlady, a girlish maidservant, a comic detective, and a Yorkshireman. Christian Andrews is the closeted Lord Arthur, Tom Mann the bookish Louis, and Blair Robertson the American John Fiske.
Tom Mann in Fanny and Stella.
All partake in the story and routines with glee and energy, and even draw out the tragedy of the situation where young men can be dismissed as “Mary Anns” and renters by those very pillars of society who seek their services.
Park and Boulton may have adopted fantasy personas to procure sex or simply to survive, but there is something sad about a twenty-something already rotting with syphilis, despite the smiles under bright red lipstick and voluminous petticoats.
Fanny and Stella continues at the Above the Stag. It is directed by Steven Dexter, designed by David Shields (who has his cast literally coming out of the closets), and choreographed by Carole Todd.
A fantastic revival of the Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields musical comes to the small stage of the Donmar, directed by Josie Rourke and choreographed by Wayne McGregor.
Company of Sweet Charity. Photo credit Johan Persson.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the casting of Anne-Marie Duff in the lead role of Charity Hope Valentine, but despite her vocal limitations in some of the songs she really shines in the role and perfectly encapsulates the dance hall hostess who has dreams of finding love.
In a varied and sparkling score, the staging of Big Spender, Rich Man’s Frug, There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This, I’m a Brass Band and I Love To Cry At Weddings stand out, and the company seem to be really enjoying the show and the ambience.
The Rich Man’s Frug. Photo by Johan Persson.
In the cameo role of Daddy Brubeck, Beverley Knight makes a quick impact with Rhythm of Life, while Arthur Darvill makes the most of the role of nervy Oscar.
The dance-hall hostesses are well-portrayed by Lizzy Connolly, Debbie Kurup, Amy Ellen Richardson, Charlotte Jaconelli, Jo Eaton-Kent, Danielle Steers, and Lauren Drew, who also double effectively across other roles and sequences.
Anne-Marie Duff, Arthur Darvill and company of Sweet Charity. Photo credit Johan Persson.
Martin Marquez is also fun as the vain movie idol Vittorio Vidal, surrounded by Warhol-type paintings of himself and living off past screen glories.
With clever use of props like the plastic container lake, a swing, neon lights, an OHP, and stepladders, locations which range from a park to Coney Island to an elevator are quickly evoked, and the performers put their all into vibrant and perceptive choreography.
Anne-Marie Duff. Photo credit Johan Persson.
This is a joyous show which still manages to get the audience’s sympathy for the hapless and idealistic Charity, and the set design by Robert Jones with its greys and silvers and general air of tackiness fits the theme.