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.
Musical versions of films seem to be one of the newest theatre trends, and here we have the tale of the dysfunctional Hopper family given a bit of stage sparkle.I’m not familiar with the source material, which feels a little dark at times and at odds with the cheery marketing for this production.
Still, as young Olive (Evie Gibson at this performance, who acted and sang well) qualifies for the Little Miss Sunshine finals in California, and we join her and her family in the journey from New Mexico, the story easily unfolds.
Richard (Gabriel Vick, veteran of a variety of musicals from Sunny Afternoon in the West End to A Little Night Music at the Menier) is chasing a book deal which will pull his family out of debt.
His wife Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford, an excellent Charity in 2017’s production of Barnum, and an effective figure of regret here) gave up her personal plans for marriage and pregnancy with son Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian, who plays act one as a prototype silent teenager before finding his voice in act two).
Then we have Sheryl’s brother Frank (Paul Keating, a bit fey – and stuck with an odd scene where he meets his ex and new husband-to-be – but good at prickly insecurity). He’s professionally successful but personally shaky following the end of a gay affair and a suicide attempt. As I said, a bit dark for a family musical which has children in it.
Granpa Hooper (played with a naughty charm by Gary Wilmot, who I have seen before in Me and My Girl, The Goodbye Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and more) has been evicted from an old age facility for doing drugs and chasing women. He has a good bond with Dwayne and Olive, and is quietly supportive of his son’s attempts to make good.
It’s a pity that Wilmot doesn’t really appear in act two, except to offer a moment of slapstick around the final leg to the pageant. His departure allows Vick a touching song about fathers and sons, though, while looking through the things Granpa “left behind”.
The songs are problematic and ill-fitting at times in this production, which only really shows flashes of humour in Granpa’s act one song “The Happiest Guy in the Van”, and in act two’s flashy pageant, where his dance routine for Olive turns into a quasi-strip routine which both reunites the family and gets them ejected from the stage.
Timelines, too, are muddled, with a flashback to Richard and Sheryl’s courting feeling more 1960s than 1980s, yet Dwayne furiously taps on a smartphone, and one of the little girls in competition with Olive is “related to the Kardashians”, while a soundman wears a Nirvana t-shirt from the 1990s.
The set, designed by David Woodhead, with revolve, yellow theme, and band up in the balcony, serves the piece well although the music overpowered the vocals somewhat in the opening ensemble number, “The Way of the World”.
Directed by Arlene McNaught, the small but talented group of musicians bring William Finn’s score to life in this intimate space.
Ultimately, despite the talents on offer – James Lapine’s book, Mehmet Ergen’s direction, and a clearly dedicated cast and crew, Little Miss Sunshine ultimately fails to gel effectively, and has moments which just feel odd in a family show.
When the lead family can be accurately described by Dwayne’s “suicide, cocaine and bankruptcy” tag, it doesn’t really sit well with Olive’s sunny optimism; and as a road trip show, I can’t help but compare it with Violet, which ran earlier in the year at Charing Cross.
Little Miss Sunshine continues at the Arcola until 11 May, then embarks on a UK tour. Photo credits – Manuel Harlan.
It was a pleasure to revisit Bartlett Sher’s revival of this superlative period musical after seeing it at the London Palladium last summer.
Here we have a cast change and in particular, a very different portrayal of the King of Siam who wishes to modernise. I saw Ken Watanabe play the role in London and he was abrasive and sizzling with frustration at the gap between his ability and his ambition.
In the tour, Jose Llana makes a playful, and likeable monarch, finding his match in Annalene Beechey’s modern “Mrs Anna”, who has no time for court customs of “grovelling like a toad” and who proclaims a woman to be the equal of a man in importance and intelligence.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score remains sharp, moving and vibrant, with opportunities for Cezarah Bonner (a dignified Lady Thiang, who completely accepts the natural order of things), Kamm Kunaree (a sweet-voiced Tuptim, slave bride from Burma who “loves another man”), and Aaron Teoh (the Crown Prince who perfectly evokes the transition from proud and imperious boy to a man who will achieve what his father has not).
The book may be lengthy and at times, out of step with the times, but with strong female roles, adorable children, and that joyous “Shall We Dance” number (as well as copious chances for sniffles), it certainly ticks the boxes for entertainment.
The King and I runs in Manchester until 11 May, before continuing on its tour.
Welcome to the third edition of The Mix.This month I’m taking a look at the musical genre, and which productions are around over the next few months. Hopefully you will find something that will appeal from these selections, taken from across London’s theatreland.
The Bush Theatre has Yvette, a new play with songs by Urielle Klein-Mekongo from 14 May – 4 June.
The Camden People’s Theatre, now in its 25th year, presents Drone, a live jam of sounds, visuals and poetry on the 2 May.
The Canal Cafe Theatre in Little Venice has a collection of new musical writing, Home, on 4 May.
Charing Cross Theatre has Amour, by Michael Legrand and Jeremy Sams, in residence from 2 May – 20 July.
Over at the Cockpit, Edgware Road, Borderline bring their satiric, humorous and musical show Welcome to the UK to the stage from 11 – 12 June.
The Donmar Warehouse continues to blaze a trail for the classic musical with Sweet Charity, until the 8 June.
The Etcetera in Camden hosts a night of sketches and songs with Hot Crisps on 14 – 15 May.
Upstairs at the Gatehouse says goodbye to the Marvelous Wonderettes on the 12 May but they reappear at the Theatre Royal Windsor from 16 – 25 May.
At the Greenwich TheatreOur House (a Mountview production) runs from the 26 April – 4 May, Smashing Mirrors Productions stop off with Three Emos on 12 May, and David Wood’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea visits from 26 – 28 May.
The London Coliseum has another high-profile musical with Man of La Mancha, which runs for six weeks from 26 April. The leading male roles are played by Kelsey Grammer and Peter Polycarpou, and the leading female role is shared by Danielle de Niese and Cassidy Janson.
The Lyric Hammersmith presents Kneehigh Theatre and Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) from 21 May – 15 June.
At the New Diorama, SpitLip (a new musical theatre collaboration between three members of comedy troupe Kill the Beast, and glam-punk composer Felix Hagan) “mix Singin’ in the Rain with Strangers on a Train” in Operation Mincemeat, which runs from 14 May – 15 June.
The New Wimbledon Theatre is home to Amelie: the Musical from the 22 – 25 May, before the show tours across the UK and in Dublin.
The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham presents Sexy Lamp, a one-woman comedy with songs, from 9 – 11 May.
In Regent’s Park, the Open Air Theatre‘s big summer musical is a revival of Evita, which runs from 2 August – 21 September.
The Orange Tree in Richmond has Elinor Cook’s new play Pilgrims, which mixes folk songs, war and women, from 5 – 11 August.
Ealing’s Questors Theatre will have Gloc Musical Theatre’s production of Side Show (about the Siamese twins the Hilton Sisters) from 15 – 18 May in the Playhouse, and The Brit Youth Theatre’s production of High School Musical from 21 – 25 May in the Studio.
At the Rose Theatre, Kingston, Stagecoach presents The Sound of Music from 16 – 17 August. Friendsical stops off between the 9 – 14 September, and Six brings the Tudor Queens into residence from the 12 – 16 November.
The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court presents The Song Project, a collaboration between nine artists, with co-creators Chloe Lamford, Wende, Isobel Waller-Bridge and Imogen Knight, and words by EV Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson. It runs from the 12 – 15 June.
The Soho Theatre presents Max Vernon’s new musical The View UpStairs, “a rainbow rollercoaster” inspired by the true story of the 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. It runs from 18 July – 24 August.
The Southwark Playhouse is currently playing host to Ain’t Misbehavin’, which runs until 1 June. Alongside that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the film, runs from 15 May – 8 June, and The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Bridge Company, and the British Theatre Academy present What Was Left (15 – 29 June) and My Son Pinocchio (26 July – 14 August) respectively.
At the Stockwell Playhouse, Stiles and Drewe’s musical Soho Cinders, presented by Artsed Sixth Form Musical Theatre Company, runs between 22 and 23 May.
Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde marks the first collaboration between Theatre Royal Stratford East and English National Opera, and runs from 1 – 13 July.
The Unicorn Theatre presents Dido, a reimagining of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, from 11 May – 2 June.
2019 has been my first year as a proper professional theatre blogger, and I had several aims at the start of January:
To visit as many London theatres as possible, particularly West End and fringe
To link up with at least three new PR companies to increase my review range
To increase my Twitter following, and expand my Pinterest presence
To utilise Instagram and YouTube to support my blog
So far all is going to plan, which is very gratifying. I am enjoying exploring new venues and seeing shows which may not have been on my radar.
Without more ado, here’s a look back to my theatre-going for the first three months of 2019!
Show count: 9 | Plays: 1 | Musicals: 8 | Venues: 9 (new venues: 0)
The first month of the year always means “Get Into London Theatre” and the New Year sale, and this year was no exception. Although there may be more lucrative discounts available, if you like to save a bit of money and plan your trips in advance, I’d recommend this.
I managed to catch Dreamgirls shortly before it closed at the Savoy, caught up with the long-running Matilda at the Cambridge, and experienced the joy of Olivier-winner Sharon D Clarke’s performance in Caroline or Change at the Playhouse. The first two really stand on one song each, but are enjoyable enough: I wouldn’t recommend paying full price.
The year began, though, with my first trip to the Almeida, Islington, for five years, to see Simon Russell Beale in Richard II, or as it was titled here, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Utilising a small enclosed box set and buckets of water, blood and soil, the King’s dilemma was reduced from the trappings of majesty to the fundamentals of man.
Reviews for Bernadette Robinson’s performance in Songs for Nobodies, in which she impersonated Garland, Piaf, Cline, Holiday and Callas, persuaded me to go along to the Ambassadors. This talented singer managed to evoke the memories of all those great stars with a minimum use of props and settings.
The National Theatre’s production of Hadestown was coming close to the end when I saw it, and I was impressed and amused to see the parallels with last year’s Mythic at the Charing Cross. Hadestown, though, is a fine musical with some excellent voice work and songs created by Anais Mitchell.
The cult hit of regal girl power, Six, was a pleasure to attend at the Arts; an old favourite, Aspects of Love, briefly stopped in the intimate setting of the Southwark Playhouse; and one of my favourite theatres, the Menier Chocolate Factory, provided a fine revival of Fiddler on the Roof – which has now deservedly transferred to the Playhouse.
Show count: 7 | Plays: 2 | Musicals: 2 | Other: 3 | Venues: 7 (new venues: 0)
The final show in my “Get Into London Theatre” crop of discounts was the new musical Come from Away, at the Phoenix. This fine one-act piece of theatre, about the Canadian town of Newfoundland which welcomed several displaced planes and their occupants on 9/11, is one of the best new works to come to the capital for quite a while, and I was glad to see it obtain a number of awards at the Oliviers.
I also saw a preview of Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre, which was the show where one of the famous pies went missing. Although it has done well on Broadway, Sara Bareilles’s musical version of the film by Adrienne Shelly is simply servicable, with few memorable songs despite the hard-working ensemble cast.
The two plays I saw were Cougar, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond (first visit since 2011), and the much-hyped When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, starring Cate Blanchett, at the National Theatre. There were definite parallels between the two, but I found the National’s production somewhat overblown, and perhaps not worth the trouble of the ballot and high ticket pricing.
Show count: 11 | Plays: 7 | Musicals: 3 | Other: 1 | Venues: 11 (new venues: 5)
March began with a trip to see Stephen Rea in the much-lauded Cyprus Avenue, at the Royal Court, which was certainly an uncompromising watch, but performed brilliantly. It was my first visit to the theatre, which is an old-fashioned wooden structure with a modern stage, and it felt quite the right space for this disturbing play by David Ireland.
Gently Down The Stream, over at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, was written by Martin Sherman and starred Jonathan Hyde, in a tender and waspish look at gay history and an age-gap relationship in 1990s London.
All About Eve, at the Noel Coward, was a quirky but not entirely successful adaptation of the famed Bette Davis film, with Gillian Anderson and Lily James in the lead parts, but Monica Dolan and Stanley Townsend stealing the acting honours. There was a bit much too reliance on video work for me, but I will continue to support the stage work of Ivo van Hove, which is rarely boring.
A trio of musicals were all enjoyable – Showstopper! brought a fun form of improvision back to The Other Palace; Violet let us take a ride on the Greyhound bus at the Charing Cross; and the 60s classic Hair made a welcome stop on its 50th anniversary tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre.
The interesting new venue in North Kensington, the Playground Theatre, hosted a revival of My Brother’s Keeper, a sharply observational dramedy about family relationships and the NHS; and a new play, Alys Always, starring Joanne Froggart, ran at the Bridge Theatre.
My first visit to the Tristan Bates Theatre, just off Seven Dials in the Actors’ Centre, was to see the showcase Character Solos, a number of variable solo performances from young writer-actors which deserved a little more attention and attendance.
The Old Vic’s building work may be obvious, but the revival of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (a play with music), was a good primer to what will prove a mini-season of the playwright’s work at a variety of London venues this year, and I applaud the venue for continuing to offer excellent discounts to regular patrons.
Closing off the month was one play I had waited for ever since the collaboration with the Barbican Centre was announced: Enda Walsh’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, starring Cillian Murphy. This inventive mix of physical comedy, technical trickery, and a touching and terrifying central performance made this worth the delay in bringing it into London.
A trip to the London suburbs to see the quintessential 60s musical, Hair.
As it was unfolding I started to think that we, in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the show, are now as far from the Vietnam conflict as audiences of 1969 were from the Great War when the musical Oh What a Lovely War was premiered.
I’ve seen three productions of Hair. The first, at Manchester Opera House in 1989, shocked my companion school pal who bleated “What have you brought me to?” during Woof’s solo song. At this point the musical was twenty years old, and it had been ten years since the film version – with a changed, but no less powerful, ending.
The original cast recordings from Broadway and London may sound like museum pieces now, but the songs transcend the years and make the emotional connection to audiences now.
The most recent production I saw before this one was the transfer from Broadway to the West End, ten years ago. At that show I introduced my husband to Hair and we ended up dancing on the stage in the finale!
So, a lot of history with me and this show. This new production ran at The Vaults last year, and now returns on a UK tour, of which Wimbledon is the first stop. The show is billed as new, fresh, and lively, and even at first glance the colours and slogans of the age of peace and love get everyone in the mood.
Jonathan O’Boyle directs and William Whelton choreographs, keeping Galt MacDermot’s music moving and the lyrics of Gerome Ragni and James Rado relevant and engaging, with the young cast dancing and weaving their way through those final innocent years.
Jake Quickenden (Berger), Paul Wilkins (Claude), Marcus Collins (Hud), Bradley Judge (Woof), Kelly Sweeney (Crissy), Daisy Wood-Davis (Sheila), Alison Arnopp (Jeanie), Aiesha Pease (Dionne) and Tom Bales (Margaret Mead) shine in the talented cast with my favourite songs “Hair”, “Good Morning Starshine”, “Where Do I Go” and “Let The Sunshine In” packing a definite punch.
If you’re open to the Summer of Love and the anti-war message (which somehow retains its currency), you will enjoy this production which doesn’t stint on the dramatics but also has fun.
Ben M Rogers’s lighting design of mainly reds evokes love, death and anger while the moments of rain and sleet add much to the overall ambience of Maeve Black’s simple set in which a cage and boxes for the guitarist and drummer have some prominence.
Will Hair survive to its 60th anniversary? I don’t know. What seems certain is that its wonderful score and its passionate message still has life in it yet.
Following a run of Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline or Change, London is now playing host to the UK premiere of an earlier work written with Brian Crawley, Violet, set on a greyhound bus, some of its stops, and in the memory of its main character.
Matthew Harvey and Kaisa Hammarlund. Photo by Scott Rylander.
The Charing Cross theatre auditorium has been reconfigured in the round, with a stage revolve and ceiling decoration. In this space Violet (and her younger self) join two soldiers and a rag-bag collection of travellers, across the southern states of the USA.
Violet was disfigured as a child and her faith has driven her to seek out healing from a preacher famous on television. She sees herself as ugly and people she meets comment on her scar, but the audience don’t see it (they see her from within rather than through the pitying eyes of others?).
Janet Mooney and Kaisa Hammarlund. Photo by Scott Rylander.
Tesori’s score may take a few repeated listens to be fully appreciated, but the ensemble pieces on the bus made me think of the airplane camaderie of Come From Away, with different concerns and overlapping stories.
Kaisa Hammarlund impresses as Violet, who trusts no-one and lives on sarcasm, cunning and nervous energy. In her quest for perfection she engages both soldiers, Monty (Matthew Harvey) and Flick (Jay Marsh) in romance, and makes peace both with herself and the Lord by the end of her travels.
Cast of Violet. Photo by Scott Rylander.
Parallel scenes of card playing and musical memories with Young Violet (Madeleine Sellman at the performance I saw) and Keirom Crook as her father, struggling to raise a child who has the eyes and the smile of her dead mother, are effective.
I also enjoyed Janet Mooney’s dual roles as the fussy old lady on the bus and the hooker in the hotel where Violet is not welcome ‘cos she’s white’.
This musical is passionate, topical and heartwarming, and despite some odd staging decisions from director Shuntaro Fujita, it thrives in this intimate theatre and moves swiftly in an economical 95 minute running time.
Kenneth Avery Clark and cast. Photo by Scott Rylander.
Violet continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6 April.
The Showstoppers have now created more than 1,000 new musicals in their shows; each one unique to its audience, and transient in nature. It’s no surprise to hear that the late Ken Campbell was an early mentor and supporter of the group, as the show does seem to have some of his anarchic spirit around the edges.
Now in its eleventh year, it has had success at the Edinburgh Fringe, on the West End – following the end of The Other Palace run on 16 March it takes up a monthly residence on Mondays at the Lyric – and on Radio 4. The premise is a simple one: a new musical created from suggestions as to setting and style at each show.
Of course, we all know that improvision is far from a simple process, which makes it all the more fantastic that what is conjured up at each show is fresh, new, funny, inspired, and entertaining. At the show we saw, the setting was “inside a volcano”, utilising the musical styles of Annie, Oliver!, Dear Evan Hansen, Legally Blonde, and eventually, Waitress, Hamilton, and Heathers as well. The name of this ephemeral show? Burn, Baby, Burn!!!
The cast of this show were a talented bunch: Matthew Cavendish the chap trying to appease the producer on the big red phone, directing and shaping the performance; Jonathan Ainscough (Patrick Hamilton), Pippa Evans (Luigi and his wife), Joshua Jackson (Mark Jones), Philip Pellew (Stuart Jones and Fredopolis), Lauren Shearing (Mrs Hamilton), and Heather Urquhart (Maria) bringing the show to life; Jordan Clarke, Alex Ash and Chloe Potter providing the accompaniment.
The show was inventive, from a “Consider Yourself” style number, a Hamilton-style rap, and a Waitress-style ballad, and characters ranging from Luigi the Italian who decided his life was best served by opening an AirBNB in a volcano, through passionate gay couple the Joneses, the dreadfully formal couple the Hamiltons, and the volcano god “Fredopolis”.
What was saw was very accomplished, from a group clearly thinking, quickly, on their feet, and for those familiar with the styles of the various musicals (I haven’t seen or heard DEH yet, but I now have a flavour of it!), this was a delicious piece of parody.
I’d definitely recommend this for a light night out. The audience can feel complicit in the creation of what they are seeing, the actors (each show features up to seven from the ensemble) and musicians can get a workout, and everyone will have a fun time.
With a week to press night, Waitress is proving to have the makings of another hit from across the pond.
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, this new musical centres on Jenna (Katharine McPhee) and her two fellow waitresses at Joe’s Diner.
Katharine McPhee, Laura Baldwin and Marisha Wallace. Photo credit Johan Persson.
Jenna is unhappily stuck in a marriage made when she and Earl (Peter Hannah) were both too young and foolish: now he belittles her gifts and takes her money.
Becky (Marisha Wallace) cares for a sick husband and finds knee-trembling fun on the side with her boss Cal (Stephen Leask), while nerdy Dawn (Laura Baldwin) finds love with the proposterous amateur magician Okie (Jack McBrayer).
When Jenna finds herself pregnant after a night of drunk sex with the husband she loathes, it is a catalyst both for her retreat into dreamy recipes she creates for all situations, and a stab at happiness with her married doctor (David Hunter).
Jack McBrayer and Marisha Wallace. Photo credit Johan Persson
The first act is largely comic, despite the spectre of domestic violence. Dawn and Okie’s courtship gives us a lot of fun, and Becky’s sass has free reign.
By the second act, we see Jenna and Becky more clearly, even Cal, who states he is “happy enough”. And old Joe (Shaun Prendergast) is the bringer of fairy dust and happy endings of the kind that just don’t happen in real life.
Katharine McPhee. Photo credit Johan Persson.
With a score which manages to be both witty and at times, emotionally engaging (Jenna’s big number “She Used To Be Mine”), Waitress is a welcome addition to the musical scene.
It feels almost churlish to have misgivings about some plot points around female empowerment, infidelity and obsession, but they stop this show just short of being perfect.
Last night there was a slight mishap early on with a missing piece of pie, deftly handled in character by all; and there are on-set jokes around the names of pies to amuse in a normal run.
Waitress continues at the Adelphi and is booking until the 19th October 2019.
Welcome to a new monthly feature on loureviews.blog – this is The Mix, where I’ll pull out some items of London theatre news, big and small, which have caught my eye.
A is for Above the Stag. This sparkling and vibrant venue, once found behind the Victoria Palace Theatre, is now in residence in Vauxhall, and is fast building its reputation as one of the finest LGBT+ theatres. In a main house and a studio, it presents a variety of shows – Grindr the Opera, and [title of show]: a musical about musicals, are next in line. To find out more, to sign up to the newsletter, or to book tickets to this valuable space, go to http://www.abovethestag.com/vxl/.
B is for Bread and Roses. This innovative and award-winning pub theatre in Clapham High Street recently showcased The Vagina Monologues and seems particularly supportive of new writers, women writers, and fringe comedy. As a relatively new venue the space is actively seeking donations and support to allow it to grow – for more, and for a taste of its upcoming productions, including Adam Gwan’s new musical Ordinary Days, which runs from 5th-16th March, go to https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/.
C is for Chichester. The festival, while taking place some miles outside the capital, has transferred a number of hit shows in over the past few years including Fiddler on the Roof, Caroline or Change, Half a Sixpence, King Lear, and Guys and Dolls. Although we are still waiting for news of the mooted transfer of the Noel Gay/Stephen Fry musical Me and My Girl, keep your eyes on this year’s big production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma, which may be London-bound in due course.
D is for Departures. All good things must come to an end, and we say goodbye to several shows this month, including the English National Opera’s La Boheme on the 22nd, Pinter Seven at the Harold Pinter Theatre on the 23rd, True West at the Vaudeville Theatre on the 23rd, Nine Night at the Trafalgar Studios on the 23rd, the glorious Songs for Nobodies at the Ambassadors on the 23rd, and The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum on the 24th.
E is for Earnest. As an honorary Yorkshire girl, having lived there for a decade, I’m sad to miss out on Th’ Importance of Bein’ Earnest at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road. It runs to the 23rd February and promises “Oscar Wilde meets Shameless” on a Yorkshire council estate, with no afternoon tea or starched collars in sight. For more information, go to https://www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk/the-importance-of-being-earnest.
F is for Fabulous. Three divas are coming to town to perform their shows, and I’m going to put them all together here. On 18th March, Liza Pullman, formerly one third of Fascinating Aida, sings Streisand at the Lyric Theatre, following a run at The Other Palace. You can purchase tickets at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/liza-pulman-sings-streisand/ and “give yourself reasons to smile this Spring”.
Finally, the legendary Tony award-winner Bernadette Peters is back in town, at the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden, and her show takes place on the 10th June, as part of a UK tour. I’ll be covering this event in the summer, and if you want to be there too, you can find more details and book tickets at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/bernadette-peters/lyceum-theatre/.
G is for the Globe, specifically the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where a new production of Richard II opens on the 22nd February. Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton direct the first ever company of women of colour in a Shakespeare play on a major UK stage, in a production which has the Windrush scandal and the Brexit crisis very much in mind. This sounds as if it will be an important production of a play which does lend itself to reinterpretation. For more information, go to https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on-2018/richard-ii.
H is for Harvey. There’s no getting over the fact that London will play host to two plays using the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein as inspiration this year. Currently running at the Playground Theatre on Latimer Road, Harvey is the brainchild (literally, given it is set in Weinstein’s head) of playwright-performer Steven Berkoff, who shows no signs of mellowing in his ninth decade. More information and booking at https://theplaygroundtheatre.london/events/harvey/. Later in the year John Malkovich returns to the West End stage for the first time in more than thirty years in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, which concerns the character of one “Barney Fein”. This will run at the Garrick Theatre from 7th June to 14th September. Find out more at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/bitter-wheat/.
I is for Inspiration, or lack of in this case, as not one, not two, but three productions of Githa Sowerbury’s 1912 Rutherford and Son are in production during 2019. One is up in Sheffield and currently running, one has just closed at Ealing’s Questors Theatre, and one is due in the National Theatre’s 2019-2020 season (starring Roger Allam). It’s a modern classic about generational strife in a family industry, which I last saw at the Oldham Coliseum in 1987. I’ll be at the National’s version in May – more information on that production at https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/rutherford-and-son.
J is for &Juliet. There’s been a lot of publicity for this musical, which comes into London towards the end of the year. Everyone knows the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, but what if Juliet survived and was able to tell her own side of the tale? In the spirit of Six, this show will utilise pop music – this time the work of Max Martin, who wrote for Britney and others – to craft and “irreverent and fun-loving” show, and it opens at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 2nd November. If you’re up North, you can catch its run in Manchester from 10th September. Find out more about the London run at http://www.shaftesburytheatre.com/shows/juliet-2/.
K is for the King’s Head. This theatre pub in Islington goes from strength to strength, and two new musicals running in late May-early June look fun, Trump: the Musical and Boris: the Musical. If parodies of current politics are not your cup of tea, you can catch the classics, too, as there are some short pieces by Tennessee Williams running in late July and through August. For more information see https://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/.
L is for Lipstick. Lipstick: a Fairy Tale of Iran runs at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham Common, from 26th February to 24th March, as part of the ’96 Festival, celebrating queerness and theatre. Part theatre, part drag cabaret, this show fuses storytelling, vaudeville, theatre, lip-synch and “boylesque”. Nathan Riley plays Mark, Siobhan O’Kelly plays Orla. This story of “rage, redemption and weaponised whimsy” promises to be a very special event. For more, see https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/lipstick/.
M is for Maggie Smith. She’s returning to the stage for the first time in twelve years in a one-woman play, at the Bridge Theatre, this April. The new play is A German Life, based on the real life testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, who once worked for Joseph Goebbels. If you are under 25 and a member of the “Young Bridge” scheme there are some tickets available for £15. More information at https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-german-life/.
N is for Nunn, Trevor. Following an acclaimed run at the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal, Bath, Nunn’s new production of Harvey Granville Barker’s recently rediscovered play Agnes Colander has just opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre (near Piccadilly Circus) and runs until the 16th March. For more details see https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/agnes-colander/.
O is for the Orange Tree Theatre. Richmond’s smallest theatre has a mix of old and new productions, and is currently showcasing Rose Lewinstein’s new play Cougar (which I will report on later in the week), with Terence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines running through June and July. The Orange Tree could always use donations and support if you are unable to attend performances. Find out more about the theatre at https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on.
P is for the Park Theatre, in Finsbury Park. Martin Sherman’s new play Gently Down The Stream has its press night tonight and runs through to the 16th March. I’ll be going in early March, and am very much looking forward to this production, directed by Sean Mathias and starring Jonathan Hyde, Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey. The play follows “the remarkably moving and brilliantly funny love story of Beau, an older American pianist living in London, and Rufus, an eccentric young lawyer, celebrating those who led the way for equality, marriage and the right to dream”. More details at https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/gently-down-the-stream.
Q is for Queens. Six: the Musical continues its run at the Arts Theatre until January 2020. If you haven’t been yet, and you need something to whet your appetite, this article from BBC Newsbeat might get you in the mood. You can book tickets for Six at https://www.sixthemusical.com/ to see “Divorced – Beheaded – Live in Concert!”.
S is for Sunday Night Socials. A new series of monthly concerts at the Union Theatre, near Southwark, these are being advertised as “very informal and relaxed” and will feature a whole host of West End performers over the next three months. For more information – and for details of main productions Can-Can and Othello – see http://www.uniontheatre.biz/whats_on.html.
T is for Transfers. Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre has its press night tonight, Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre on the 6th March. These transfers from old Broadway will soon be joined by a third show, Dear Evan Hansen, at the Noel Coward Theatre, for which early booking will be open at the end of this month. I visited Come from Away earlier this month and see Waitress next week.
U is for Underground, specifically The Vaults, beneath Waterloo Station. The Vaults Festival is currently in full swing until the 17th March, with a diverse programme of theatre, comedy, film, and late shows. You can find out more about the Festival at https://vaultfestival.com/.
V is for Vic, Old. The grand old lady of The Cut is currently undergoing a refit which will improve the foyer and more importantly, the loos! In the meantime, if you’re visiting, there’s portakabins instead. I just have to share this delightful video from their Twitter account – https://twitter.com/oldvictheatre/status/1063045610570506240 – #MORELOOS!!!!
W is for the West End, and the Official West End Theatre Guide for the huge, the overpriced, and the spectacular shows on in the big houses – https://guides.ticketmaster.co.uk/west-end-theatre/. By all means support as and if you can, but remember there are literally thousands of places and performances in our metropolis.
X is for is Dock X, at Surrey Quays. If you’re creating a special and unique event, this new multi-use space might be just the ticket. The industrial space lends itself to brand activations, car launches, conferences, award dinners, cultural pop ups, experiential and team building events across its vast 34,100 sq. ft reach. Perfect for creatives! More at https://venuelab.co.uk/venues/dock-x-london/.
Y is for Youth. The Unicorn Theatre, on Tooley Street, London Bridge, is dedicated to developing work for young audiences. In 70 years of children’s theatre, it also has a vibrant Schools’ Programme, workshops, and this week is running some special events for half term. Find out more at https://www.unicorntheatre.com/whatson.
Z is for Zoo. Watching and learning about animals in a caring and natural habitat is a form of theatre, whether you are in Regent’s Park, Battersea or my local little zoo at Hanwell.
Part of the Cadogan Hall Broadway series, we were treated yesterday to a visit to London by an icon of musical royalty, Chita Rivera.
Now 86 years old, she created the roles of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, toured in Sweet Charity, and appeared in London in Bye Bye Birdie and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.
Old enough to have known the likes of Bernstein, Fosse and Kander & Ebb, she performed a diverse set of numbers punctuated by stories of her road to success.
Her voice isn’t what it was – although in A Boy Like That, All That Jazz, Jacques Brel’s Carousel and a number from Kander & Ebb’s final show The Visit it comes to life with hints of the vibrancy she must have shown fifty or sixty years ago.
Head to toe in red from her earrings to high-heeled shoes, ‘Chi’ is still every inch a star, with knowing asides and dance moves.
Her set is full of lesser-known numbers from the likes of The Rink, Sweet Charity, Seventh Heaven (in which Chita sings not just the part of Fifi but also Camille and Cosette!), and Bye Bye Birdie (assisted by Tim Flavin on one song, Rosie).
Enjoyable, if only to see an original star in action – there are fewer of them by the year, but this one shows no signs of slipping into retirement just yet.
All I knew about this show on arrival was that it was a musical inspired in some way by the events on 9/11. I hadn’t heard any of the score, or seen any production photos, so it was a complete blind buy based on the success this show has had across the pond (and the fact it was available in the Get Into London Theatre promotion helped, too).
In the town of Gander, on the island of Newfoundland, off the shores of Canada, a small community of a few thousand people get on with the business of life. There’s a bus strike. The Mayor, who doesn’t drink, nevertheless gets all his gossip from the local pub. There’s a new reporter in town, a girl called Janice. There’s a school, a sports hall.
Then news that 6, then 11, then 20, then 30, then 38 planes are being diverted out of American airspace. A national emergency, bringing so many passengers the town’s population doubles that day. Men, women, children. A group headed for Disneyland. An Englishman headed for a conference. Wives, mothers. Christians, Jews, Muslims.
The town rises to the challenge. Shopping trips are made, food is prepared, phones are provided, clothes are donated. “There’s a candle in the window, and the kettle’s always on”, goes the refrain, and so it proves. Disputes are put aside; the hockey match space becomes a giant walk-in refrigerator. Passengers who hardly spoke to each other en route find common ground, or common emnity (the suspicion against the Muslim passengers is not glossed over).
Based on a true story, the show fleshes out some stories – the awkward romance of Nick and Diane, Hannah’s hopeless desperation in trying to find news of her firefighter son, Beverley the air captain who can’t compute the “thing I love being used as a bomb”, the two gay Kevins – and finds time for others like Ali the award-winning Muslim cook, Bob the nervous man who finds peace in the friendly environs of Gander, Bonnie who cares for the animals left on board the abandoned planes, Claude the tenacious mayor, Janice the reporter, Beulah the mother hen, the elderly Jew who has never breathed a word about his faith to anyone.
With a cast of twelve playing multiple parts, you’ll see the same actors as Newfoundlanders and refugees, as the confident and the faint of heart, and all this is realised in a simple set and just a shade of change in costume or accent. It’s a very intensive play with most actors on stage throughout, and if there were a couple of microphone drop-outs during the show, that’s nothing that can’t be easily fixed. Evoking a sense of time and place is far more important, and this is done without apparent effort, from the bar to the confines of a plane, to the schoolroom where hundreds sleep on the floor to the top of the Rock.
All the cast are exceptional and hard-working – Clive Carter (Claude), Mary Doherty (Bonnie), David Shannon (Kevin T), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J/Ali), Rachel Tucker (Beverley), Cat Shannon (Hannah), Robert Hands (Nick), Helen Hobson (Diane), Nathanael Campbell (Bob), Emma Salvo (Janice), Harry Morrison (Oz), and at the performance I saw, Chiara Baronti (Beulah).
The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein runs from Irish whimsey and humour through to sweet ballads, and evokes just the right balance of laugh out loud amusement (the bar scene, the cardiologists) and moments of emotional engagement (Prayer, Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere).
I laughed, I cried. I invested in each and every character which is a tribute to the writers, the performers, and the director Christopher Ashley. The lively band quite rightly had their own curtain call which got the audience to its feet – if they hadn’t already risen for the cast – and sent us out on a high.
And what’s a “Come From Away“? It’s anyone who comes from outside the island, but by the time we left (and thanks to the little badges we could pick up at the door), I think we could all say “I am an islander”. This is a musical with heart and soul. Running initially until September, I’d highly recommend you give it a go.
The Chichester Theatre production of this accomplished musical has just announced it closes a month early to make room for the transfer of Fiddler on the Roof from the Menier, but I would recommend you take advantage of the deals and discounts now available to see Caroline, or Change, if you can.
Planned for several years, and written by Angels in America author Tony Kushner, this show was originally planned as an opera but instead grew into a stage musical, largely sung-through, composed by Jeanine Tesori (her previous show, Violet, is also in town, and I will report back on that next month).
Caroline (Sharon D Clarke) is a black maid who works for a rich Jewish family, the Gellmans. She is a widow with three children of her own, who live in poverty under the shadow of the Confederate Statue we see as the play opens, a symbol of the white privilege which stops the likes of Caroline and her friend Dotty (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) from getting on in life.
The opening scene proper gives a sense of the unusual: there is a singing washing-machine, a dryer, and eventually, the lady in the moon. This gives a sense of the fantastic to Caroline’s mundane day of cleaning and doing the laundry.
We are also introduced to Noah, the spoiled young man of the house (Aaron Gelkoff at this performance), who misses his dead mother, resents his cookie-cut stepmother (Lauren Ward), and enjoys sharing an illicit daily cigarette with Caroline.
Noah has a habit of leaving loose change in his pockets, and this is the “change” which is depicted in the title; he seeks attention by leaving the change for Caroline (who is allowed by Rose, the wife, to keep it), and she takes the opportunity to treat her children to the treats they would otherwise go without.
Politics intrude now and then – the assassination of JFK, who was on the side of civil liberties, and a Chanukah celebration which touches on racial politics, with an argument between Mr Stopnick, Rose’s father (Teddy Kempner) and Emmie, Caroline’s growing daughter (Abiona Omonua) – but what matters is the bond between people, and the aspiration for change in the literal sense.
Noah’s father (Alastair Brookshaw) plays the clarinet and hides his grief; his parents (Vincent Pirillo and Sue Kelvin) add pointed commentary, and Noah grows to find his place in the natural order of things; still, by the ending it seems Caroline has achieved her change, set aside the memories of the sailor she lost, and found her place.
The songs are largely memoraable and vibrant – highlights would include Lot’s Wife, I Hate the Bus, and the Laundry Quintet, with the Radio girls who form a kind of chorus. Clarke is an acting and singing powerhouse, and Omonua is impressive, and all the children do well with their routines.
An informative programme (£5) gives the cultural background on the time depicted, and the genesis of the show.