A lengthy revival of August Wilson’s depiction of African-American life in mid-80s America reaches its second preview at Stratford East, directed by Nadia Fall.
Although much has been made of the debut of Lenny Henry at this venue, he’s only one part of a core cast of six, who portray family and friends with secrets, resentments, and faith.
Lenny Henry in King Hedley II
With a tendency to light character revelations as if they are monologues, King Hedley II can both run the risk of taking an audience out of the moment, and drawing them in deeper to the tragedy which slowly unfolds.
Martina Laird, last seen by me in a gender-swap The Taming of the Shrew in 2016, plays Ruby, a former band singer who gave up her son, King (Aaron Pierre), to her sister, and had her lover blasted to death by the man who has courted her on and off for 37 years. Her life is as heavy as can be but she still brings a girlish lightness to the part.
Martina Laird and Lenny Henry in rehearsal for King Hedley II
He’s Elmore, a gambling crook and a sharp-suited ageing Romeo. Lenny Henry plays the role well, easily commanding the stage in his early scenes, and crumbling apart as his veneer of bravado finally cracks open.
Next door is the God-fearing Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who has hundreds of newspapers piled high in his house, visible at each window, perusing them each day because “you need to know”.
Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Aaron Pierre in rehearsal for King Hedley II
King wants to emulate his father, Hedley, who killed a man with a machete. His destiny is to be somebody, although he’s killed for being called a champ and being ripped open with a razor. With friend Mister (Dexter Flanders), a loser whose wife has walked out and who dresses scrappily, he talks about money and settling scores.
Wilson’s passages recalling the murders were very well directed and performed by all concerned, and rightly full of realistic detail – we visualise the man trapped in the phone booth with terror in his eyes; we see the skull fragment shoot across the barber shop; we are with the woman who recognises her beau by all that is left of his face at the morgue.
Lenny Henry in the trailer for King Hedley II
Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) is thirty-five and pregnant, but she’s already a grandmother by her grown-up daughter who trawls bars for men “to lay down with”. She sees no future but a man in prison and a child on a slab, yet she still walks in bright red lipstick and heels as though she’s searching for something.
Music choices for scene changes and backing work well in this production, all female-led and underlining the action we have seen or are about to. At key points Ruby, Elmore and Tanya also sing snatches of tunes which fit with the general plot.
Lenny Henry in King Hedley II
The staging, too, by Peter McKintosh: the first thing we see is a transparent curtain with news items about Reagan, then two houses with an alleyway, a fence, and a patch of dirt where King wants to grow flowers.
King Hedley II is a modern tragedy, but not without humour. At the moment it is running 3 hr 40 including interval, not the 3 hr noted in the programme, so a pick-up of pace, some trimming, or an earlier start might help those with half an eye on their transport home.
Give this neglected play your attention, though, and you’ll find a modern classic with both the power to make you smile, and to shock you at the climax of the final act.
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.
A sunny afternoon is perhaps not the perfect time to see one of Ibsen’s more ponderous plays, but this tale of the morally oppressive house of Pastor Rosmer, the memory of his drowned wife, and the political machinations in the upcoming election has a lot of relevance to what’s happening in the UK right now.
Ian Rickson’s production finds the humour within the text and translation (by Duncan MacMillan) despite the constant feeling, quite rightly, that disaster is just around the corner. With perceptive comments about the power of the press to bring influence from good or bad, the play retains its power to connect.
John Rosmer (Tom Burke) has lost his faith and has been swayed to the political left, personified by disgraced Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother) who was cast out for having a child with a married woman, and who now publishes the leftist newspaper The Lighthouse.
Governor Kroll (Giles Terera) whose dead sister had been married to Rosmer, represents the right-wing of politics, against any talk of equality and a strong upholder of what he sees is the decent way of living (marriage, children, the Church, sobriety). He reveres the ancestors of Rosmersholm, a set of unsmiling men depicted in portraits which line the walls of the large dining room in which we first find ourselves.
Into this house we also find Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who had been a friend to both the Rosmers, and who is a liberated, independent thinker with a shadowy past. In contrast to her is Mrs Helseth (Lucy Briers), long-time housekeeper, who gets her opinions from the traditional paper The Tribune, yet acknowledges that women “are all human”.
There is also an academic idealist, come to grief, in the person of Ulrik Brendel (Peter Wight), who turns up to Rosmersholm in rags, to call in favours from his former pupil and protege. His assumption that the people can think for themselves also comes to grief.
Rae Smith’s set is huge and oppressive, with cavernous space and triple height doors and windows, with Rosmer’s bedroom showing the spaces where his cross and (presumably) portrait of his dead wife once graced the wall.
At first the house is in darkness, furniture shrouded, dead flowers; then it opened up to represent something of the insight Rosmer thinks he has gained of the world.
When he tells his bewildered servants “I do not think I am better than you” and gives them fresh flowers to take back to their families, this is mainly received in silence, save one manservant who skips briefly on his way to the door.
The ending is bleak, and cleverly indicated as the stage floods with water as the mill wheel fails to keep the river moving. This is an important new reading of Rosmersholm, which deserves a bit more interest from audiences.
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.
On the final day of a successful run, I caught up with my favourite Arthur Miller play, this time staged at the tiny theatre just off Hackney Wick station, and directed by artistic director and founder of The Yard, Jay Miller.
A powerful play about the power of men, the subjection of women, and the dangers of propaganda and hysteria, The Crucible can be read in many ways from the #MeToo movement to the Brexit crisis.
Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
Playing with gender norms, John Proctor, the male lead character of this play, is portrayed here by a woman, Caoilfhionn Dunne, who exhibits an intensity, a vulnerability, and a core of steel which comes together to make a deeply effective performance.
Dunne’s Proctor is supported by a small company who both pull this complex play together and plug the gaps left by not having all the characters present on stage when the play demands it (instead clever use of staging and sound choices keep things moving).
Jacob James Beswick in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
Nina Cassells as Abigail, Emma D’Arcy as Elizabeth Proctor, Lucy Vandi as Tituba and Rebecca Nurse, Jack Holden as Rev Hale and Sorcha Groundsell as Mary Warren are all superb, with the remainder of the cast making their mark (Jacob James Beswick as the Judges and Thomas Putnam especially repellent; Sophie Duval a rounded Giles Corey; Syrus Lowe as Parris, whose misplaced fear and vanity set the wheels of disaster in motion).
Cecile Tremolieres’ set design is deceptively simple; Oliver Cronk’s costumes move from the modern casual of the opening act, to period costume and eventually more contemporary pieces; and Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design fuses lullabies, electro and Roy Orbison to good effect.
Sorcha Groundswell and Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
It is Miller’s words that shine through, though, beginning from an overture which is a rehearsed read-through, to the hysteria of the later passages. With a woman as Proctor, we see the character in a slightly different light, and even Abigail appears more fearful and abused child than cunning whore.
Nina Cassells and Syrus Lowe in The Crucible. Photo by Helen Murray.
This is an excellent and powerful production of a familiar classic, using space, sound, lighting (Jess Bernberg’s varied work with spotlights, strobes, candles and more) to bring the homes and rooms of Salem to life.
An emotional roller-coaster which definitely has relevance today, this is possibly the best Miller adaptation this year; certainly the best of the three I have seen so far this year.
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.
Caryl Churchill’s play has always fascinated me, but this is the first stage production I have managed to see, in Lyndsey Turner’s fine revival.
The opening act introduces us to Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) on the eve of her promotion to MD of a recruitment agency; to celebrate, she hosts a dinner in a restaurant with five strong women from the past – Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo and Isabella Bird.
All have their own stories to tell about survival in a world that favours men, and in particular about matters relating to love and motherhood.
Act two focuses on young Angie, who is young for her age and who dreams of killing her mum, Joyce, and running away to London to be with her aunty (Marlene).
She runs away and finds herself in the busy agency, where women are discouraged from talking about marriage plans, presented as successful only if they behave like men or are pushy, and where the values of “men first” still find a voice in the wife of the man who lost out on the MD promotion; she feels he should have the job by right as he is a family provider.
Finally, after a curiously placed interval, act three goes back a year to reveal secrets and conflicts between Marlene, her sister Joyce, and young Angie, who are worlds apart in drive, ambition and politics. Marlene epitomises the new Thatcherite woman, each for themselves – “if someone is stupid, lazy or frightened, why should I help them get a job?”. Joyce sees the reality of the woman trapped by cirumstance.
Top Girls should not have contemporary relevance, but it does, and despite those historical figures all women can aspire to, in many ways high achievers like Marlene are still the exception and regarded as suspect.
With a set by Ian McNeil which ranges from a beautifully detailed 80s kitchen and high powered office to a claustrophobic back yard, Top Girls boasts a contemporary soundtrack and some excellent performances from a wide cast which does not rely on Churchill’s traditional doubling-up of roles.
Aside from Kingsley, I particularly enjoyed Amanda Lawrence’s matter-of-fact Pope (“I never lived as a woman”), Lucy Black’s quietly resentful but tough Joyce, Wendy Kweh’s egotistical Nijo, Liv Hill’s damaged Angie, and Amanda Hadingue’s brittle Louise (who seeks a change after 21 years in the same male-dominated office).
So many details leapt out to me – the pursuit of money, the poor families who cooled their milk in a dish of cold water, the disregard for children across time, the battle each woman faces and has always faced for success.
Churchill’s overlapping dialogue and parallels between history and contemporary mores remains clever, and although I might have preferred a more even split between the show before and after the interval, this play retains its quiet power and purpose.
Top Girls continues at the National Theatre. Photo credits: Johan Persson.
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.
Known for pushing conventional dance boundaries, Masters of Choreography is back with their worldwide sell out show Beats on Pointe, a dynamic modern story of two opposing dance worlds; street vs ballet.
The Peacock Theatre in Holborn is the venue for Australian’s hit dance fusion show, Beats on Pointe, which returns from 21 May to 16 June 2019. You can expect dance, beat boxing, break dancing, and much more as ballet and street dance comes together, and it looks to be a very exciting show for theatre, dance and ballet fans alike.
I asked Jennifer Masters, the show’s director, producer, writer and director of choreography, to tell me a bit more about the show in advance of its opening.
The advance publicity promises a ballet and street mash-up where “opposing worlds clash”. Is this particularly exciting for you as the main creator and choreographer of the show, and where did the original idea come from?
I am extremely excited to be able to see my vision come to life on stage. Ballet is the foundation of all dance and my personal passion lies within street dance so creating this fusion as a commercial dance theatre production is something that has been whirling around in my mind for a very long time.
I have always loved fusing genres in my choreography as I feel that it makes for exciting and dynamic entertainment, so to take this methodology to the stage in the manner that I have presented in Beats on Pointe is absolutely magnificent!
There are comic moments amongst the classic and contemporary dance moves – what can an audience for Beats on Pointe expect for entertainment?
Beats on Pointe is more than just a dance show, it is a dance theatre extravaganza. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to ensure that I presented elements outside of choreography that would entertain the audience and keep them fixed on what was happening on the stage.
Comedic moments are displayed throughout the entire show, as well as live percussion, singing, beatboxing and audience participation. When I merge all these elements along with an upbeat killer soundtrack, it makes for a fantastic, feel-good experience that is unquestionably breath-taking!
It must be interesting for the dancers to explore different facets of their profession. How has the fusion of styles and backgrounds impacted on the creative process?
I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my dancers train outside their comfort zones and beyond their usual genres of dance and performance. My vision and creative process is thorough and encompassing whereby I ensure that I am able to extract the best artistry out of each of my performers.
I enjoy finding talents beyond their dance training so that I can bring their unique variety of skills to my stage. In this regard, the various backgrounds of training and experience from my cast has definitely impacted on the creative process.
Where possible and keeping in line with my creative vision, I utilise the additional skillsets that these performers bring with them, many times pushing the boundaries of my vision and the abilities of the dancers. I will never compromise my show nor my dancers, but I will push the limits to create brilliance!
The poster advertising the show is so vibrant, colourful and evocative. How important is it that the technical side of the production complements the different dance styles, or have creative choices been made which will surprise us?
I like to think that our show poster along with the Beats on Pointe stylistic lettering, with its vibrancy, colour and energy, portrays exactly what I want to convey to anyone considering to see this show – that it will be modern, edgy and electric entertainment.
As with any stage show, it goes without saying that the technical side of the production needs to complement the various dance styles and performances on stage, however, I have ensured that what happens on my stage can stand on its own merits, that the creativity, energy and performance value is always exciting and memorable.
Each component of the show has a ‘WOW’ factor. I wanted to ensure that if an audience member walks into my show at any given time, that they will not be able to take their eyes off the stage.
What have been your influences in ballet, street and hip-hop? Do you like to pay homage to any of the ground-breaking artists of the past?
The influences on this show and my creative process are many and eclectic with both music artists and dancers inspiring my creative process. I can immediately name artists such as Mikhail Baryshnikov whom I also had the pleasure of seeing perform live on stage and whom has always inspired me; there is also Janet and Michael Jackson who impacted my dance career immensely and others such as the dancers from movies like Breakdance and Beat Street which were released throughout my youth and that had a huge impact on the dance scene. I do pay homage to some of my influences in this show but you will need to see Beats on Pointe to see what I have created for your entertainment.
Tell me a bit about the musical choices for Beats on Pointe. Will anything particularly shock or move audiences?
I am extremely proud of the music selection for Beats on Pointe. Each choice of music was made with the thought that it had to portray the energy and positivity of the show, without taking away the fun and feel-good factor I wanted our show to provide to our audience.
The show will not shock anyone because of its music content or lyrics but what may shock is the choice of music made for the piece that is being performed, such as a ballerina performing to an Eminem track. There are also numerous moments that the music and the performance of our dancers will move our audience with a mixture of emotions ranging from joy to a calming awe.
Overall, the response to my musical selection has been outstanding and due to the audience demand, I am proud to say that you can now order the Beats on Pointe soundtrack!
What is coming up next for Masters of Choreography?
London is an exciting part of the global tour we have planned for our Beats on Pointe show. We have dates locked in throughout the world over the next couple of years and are very excited with this tour.
Beats on Pointe has a sister show called Raise the Barre which we will be bringing to the international stage in 2020 as well. In addition to our yearly showcases and events, we also have other shows in the development stage and are also focused on a few new avenues of entertainment that we will announce over the next year. We are proud of our achievements and look forward to taking our shows and events throughout the world. As we like to say – All for the love of dance!
It’s the final day for Funeral Flowers, which has been in residence at the Bunker Theatre (a former underground car park in Southwark right next to the Menier Chocolate Factory).
Emma Dennis-Edwards created and performs this piece, which has made the journey from the Edinburgh Fringe. The play has won the Scotsman’s Fringe First Award and the Filipa Bragança Award.
Angelique is seventeen. Her father, “the sperm donor” is hardly around; her mother, who loves tulips and dreams of visiting France, is in prison. Their teenage daughter is in foster care and training to be a florist at college.
We first meet Angelique sorting her flower stems, putting us in the picture about her family life, carer, college lecturer, and boyfriend Mickey (he deals drugs and she has a picture of him on her phone as a little boy with a black eye).
Over the course of the play, in which all characters are portrayed by Dennis-Edwards, we are invited to get closer to the action as Angelique recounts what happens to her at a party where Mickey gets her drunk and forces himself on her (“felt like the first time except without the butterflies”), then leaves her as bait to pay off a debt.
Then to home, a shower, more flower motifs, lilies and innocence. A change of residence after a showdown with foster mum, a change of college but still with the dreams of building a business.
This is a clever and perceptive play, and even if it might work in the Bunker with the audience close to Angelique’s monologues and reminiscences, I believe that in Edinburgh it was more of an immersive promenade performance with different rooms.
However, Dennis-Edwards effortlessly conjures up characters which feel real, from the confused teenager herself through to the foster mum who cries quietly in the car.
The closeness of the small audience to performer gives Funeral Flowers a definite edge, and in the bar with its odd ramped entrance (an inheritance from its days as a car park) dried flowers decorate the floor and waiting areas.
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.
Being invited to experience a musical part-way through its journey is particularly exciting for a fan of the genre, and so I was delighted to be able to make space in my diary for this workshop production of Broken Wings.
A musical adaptation of a novel by Kahlil Gibran, this production has music and lyrics by Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman (who also assumes a leading role as the older Gibran).
This is stated to be the final genesis of a work which has gone through a journey from concept album to revisions. It’s an interesting work, set in a Beirut where a woman’s marriage is a matter for a transaction “between young men and fathers”.
Nadim Naaman in Broken Wings
Young Khalil Gibran (Benjamin Purkiss) has spent time in America, where his mother and siblings relocated after his father’s imprisonment (on which charge, we never discover).
This idealistic young man reconnects with his homeland and his good friend, Karim (Nadeem Crowe), who mocks his speech and Western ways. Through Karim, a friendship is forged with one Farris Karamy (Karl Seth), a respectable and wealthy widower with a beautiful daughter, Selma (Nikita Johal).
Just as Khalil and Selma find their mutual love, they are parted in true Romeo and Juliet style as the powerful local Bishop (Jeremy Secomb) seeks the girl in marriage for his philandering nephew Mansour (Sami Lamine) – in some ways a surrogate marriage as he desires her himself.
Against this backdrop we have a range of songs including pieces which move the plot along, melodramatic duos and solos, and one motif song for the company of thirteen performers which resurfaces three times, “The Spirit of the Earth”.
Selma is a strong and independent woman, but she is out of step with the times: she may exhibit both the “softness and strength” of her dead mother, but she is powerless to influence her own fate.
The musical accompaniment by Benjamin Cox (keyboard) and Joe Davison (piano) sometimes threatens to drown out the singers, but largely underscores the action very well.
At times I was able to picture the sort of settings which will accompany this musical in its full form this summer. At other times I felt the story was lost, and although I appreciated the tragic events stemming from Selma’s marriage, secret (but seemingly chaste) meetings with Khalil, and eventual birth of a son “you have come to lead me home”, I didn’t feel sufficiently connected to identify with Selma’s impassioned “broken wings” outburst, or with Khalil’s “you have buried my heart in that grave”.
In such a small company it is hard to single out performances, but Johal and Soophia Foroughi give a strong sense of strength in their singing and acting to Selma and Mother, and I enjoyed the performances of Seth and Secomb as Farris (vulnerable and lonely without his wife and daughter) and the Bishop (conniving and greedy).
Broken Wings played on 28 April for two performances; I attended the afternoon show.
Archive television fans have been rejoicing over the past few weeks with reruns of some of the Thames episodes of Armchair Theatre on Talking Pictures TV.
Armchair Theatre was a series which ran on the ITV network between 1956 and 1974. It was originally a production of ABC (Associated British Corporation) until its successor Thames Television took over in mid-1968.
Network on Air have released several volumes on DVD, beginning in 2010 with a two-disc set of Thames episodes and then in 2012 with another two-disc set. Since later in 2012, subsequent releases have been purely of ABC episodes, licensed to the company by Studio Canal, and have so far numbered two four-disc releases in the general range, and four Armchair Theatre Archive releases of one-disc each.
There are approximately 170 episodes which have survived the widespread wiping of video tapes in the past, from a total of around 450. As well as official releases a number continue to circulate on the collectors’ market either as DVD-Rs or uploads to streaming sites.
Made during a time when plays were regular fare on television (The Wednesday Play/Play for Today, Theatre 625, Thirty Minute Theatre, Play of the Month, Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse, and others), Armchair Theatre stands out as a groundbreaking training ground for writers and directors finding their feet as well as stand-out performances from a wide range of actors, both veteran and new faces.
Although some actors rated performing on the stage over the new medium of television in the 1950s, writers were far more pragmatic, with Harold Pinter as one who recognised that an at-home audience of just over 6 million for A Night Out (1960) was far more lucrative than a theatre audience for The Caretaker, which was running at the same time.
I’ve started putting my thoughts together on the various episodes on the associated Armchair Theatre review project page here, and eventually all the episodes I have seen will have capsule reviews. Not every episode is a winner, but the standard, at least in the ABC years, seems consistently high, especially in the years where Sydney Newman was in charge (1959-1962).
There were spin-off series (Armchair Mystery Theatre), later Thames series using the same prefix but little in common (the group of TV movies under the title Armchair Cinema and the serial thrillers under the name of Armchair Thriller), and even a parody on radio in Round the Horne’s Armpit Theatre. The titles gave a sense of occasion, too, whether theatre masks or something more abstract, and in an era of two TV channels at the start of the series, Armchair Theatre could guarantee a captive audience, as well as giving the new upstart ITV a bit of class.
In the early days plays were performed live, and were a mix of new drama, titles imported from the USA, and adaptations of well-loved classics (The Emperor Jones, The Importance of Being Earnest). Later the plays were more or less original, and if a slight dip in quality occurred in the later Thames years, it coincided with what many archive TV fans class as the end of the golden era of the television play.
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.
This is the second production in my unofficial 2019 Arthur Miller theatrical quintet, following The American Clock. Still to come are The Crucible, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman.
It was also set to be an unofficial trio of actors who appeared in Downton Abbey, following Alys Always (Joanne Froggart) and Tartuffe (Kevin Doyle). But leading man Brendan Coyle is indisposed, so Sion Lloyd is on as Victor.
Brendan Coyle and Sara Stewart in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
The Price is rarely revived – I saw the 2004 production in Leeds with Warren Mitchell as Solomon, and there is an excellent TV version from 1971 which was led by George C Scott as Victor.
But the play isn’t particularly well known – a pity, as it is a family drama, with comic interludes (David Suchet’s ancient dealer Solomon is beautifully judged) and an eventual final act into which Lloyd’s tour de force as the seething policeman clashes with his selfish and wealthy brother Walter (Adrian Lukis).
David Suchet in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
Victor’s wife (a spiky Sara Stewart, who displays little warmth) has always resented his missed opportunities, lack of education, scrimping and saving while their lives were on hold. Now it has been three years since Dad has died, and his cluttered attic, represented brilliantly by Simon Higglett’s set which literally fills the walls with furniture, is to be cleared, sold, and the house demolished.
Adrian Lukis, David Suchet, Brendan Coyle in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
The Price is a wordy and challenging play – Victor and Walter may be more like each other than they’d like to admit, and they are both complex and damaged characters. Jonathan Church’s direction of this 50th anniversary production gets to the heart of the matter.
Victor may feel crushed by lack of opportunity, but also lack of ambition – but it is the successful doctor Walter who has divorced, and who is recovering from a breakdown.
David Suchet in The Price. Photo credit Nobby Clark.
On the fringes of this brotherly discussion are the wife, the dealer, and the spirit of the dead dad, whose clutter both physical and financial, has stopped everyone moving on. Mum has been dead for years but her gowns are still carefully boxed. There’s a fencing sword, an oar, a harp.
I liked the way that music tops and tails the play, beginning with the vaudeville staple “Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean” (Solomon worked with them, in his youth, in a family of acrobats) and closing with a 1920s “laughing record”.
World Book Night is an annual initiative run every 23 April by charity The Reading Agency.
World Book Night 2019 logo
Working with care homes, youth centres, colleges, prisons, public libraries and mental health groups, The Reading Agency aims to get books to adults who have low literacy levels or who do not read for pleasure, isolated and vulnerable people, and similar groups.
The books chosen to be given away tonight are listed at World Book Night – Books. Events are taking place across the country all day.
I asked for suggestions from some of my friends and followers for their favourite books.
Here’s a small selection:
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
The Far Pavilions – MM Kaye
A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
Cooking in a Bedsitter – Katherine Whitehorn
Trumpet – Jackie Kay
Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee
How To Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran
The Aeneid – Virgil
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
Wild Swans – Jung Chang
The Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett
Do you have a favourite book, a comfort blanket or something that has influenced or inspired you?
The news reports have largely been about the rediscovery of The Beatles’ only live appearance on Top of the Pops but it is really just a squint at a few seconds of “Paperback Writer”.
Title card with musician Ashleigh Hennessey
Far more interesting were clips from Ready Steady Go including a snippet of Nina Simone, a couple of high energy and vibrantly filmed numbers from The Who, and some close-up filming of lovely Paul Jones from Manfred Mann playing his harmonica in a couple of blues numbers.
Two compilations suffered a bit from not identifying the acts, although of course we knew Sweet, T-Rex, Elton John, plus Lieutenant Pigeon, Peters and Lee, and even Geordie (pre-AC/DC Brian Johnson) and a knockout performance from Jethro Tull.
Pete Murray with host David Hamilton
Guests were the veteran broadcaster Pete Murray and Sweet leader Andy Scott, and David Hamilton hosted the afternoon, before the last edition of Top of the Pops to be filmed in black and white. This included the original promo of The Beatles with “Something”, oddly eschewing shots of Linda McCartney for Paul skipping about alone. A side-by-side comparison with the final version rectified this and was weirdly touching.
David Hamilton and Andy Scott of Sweet
An excellent show, especially the pieces retrieved from 1960s and 1970s computer tape recordings. Kaleidoscope, now in their 31st year , of finding, restoring and curating archive TV clips, programmes and continuity, are to be applauded for their continued efforts in this sphere.
It’s been quite a few years since we last saw John Wilson conduct a piece by Gilbert and Sullivan; that was TheYeomanoftheGuard at the Royal Festival Hall.
This time the short piece Trial by Jury is teamed with a selection of other pieces from the oeuvre of G&S, presented in a witty and entertaining programme on the South Bank.
Programme for Trial by Jury
Although all the guest singers were exceptional, it was especially enjoyable to hear patter king Simon Butteriss as The Learned Judge as well as sharing The Mikado‘s “little list” and regaling us of the tale from HMS Pinafore about “ruling the Queen’s navy”.
He was joined by Louise Alder, a light and colourful soprano; tenor Robert Murray (the Defendant, who started his case from within the audience, and who also sang “Is Life a Boon” from the aforementioned Yeoman); baritone Simon Bailey (Plaintiff’s Counsel and a lively devil in the first half); and baritone Michael Craddock as an amusing Usher.
John Wilson rehearsing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are a accomplished group of musicians, expert in the works of Handel, Bach and Beethoven, but having fun with the 19th century operetta on show here.
Their choir are also wonderful, incorporating six of each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses (one of which did duty as Trial by Jury‘s foreman). Their ensemble pieces in the first half were clear and bright, and they added to the amusement once the main piece started.
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.
The award-winning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel is in its final weeks in the West End, doubtless making plenty of money for the National Theatre, where it originated in 2012.
Sam Newton as Christopher. Photo from the UK tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Christopher Boone (Sam Newton) is a fifteen year old boy on the autism spectrum, a maths genius who finds it hard to function with the chat and metaphors of daily life.
In our glimpse into Christopher’s world, we see and hear how overwhelming everyday activities are to him (act two’s train and tube journey’s are especially evocative).
His father (Stuart Laing) struggles to cope with his clever and challenging child, sometimes overboiling with frustration he instantly regrets. His decision to tell a catastrophic lie leads to the events which close the first half (as sounds, lights, collapsing numbers and falling letters contribute to the boy’s reaction to a shock), and into the adventures of act two.
Newton, adaptor Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott create a powerful and believable depiction of the complexities of autism, with a cohesive balance between the comic perception of everyday statements (“the apple of his eye”) and the pathos of emotional attachments (father, mother, neighbour’s dog. pet rat, new puppy).
Emma Beattie as Judy. Photo credit Brinkhoff/Mogenburg
The supporting cast are uniformly good – Emma Beattie as the mother who couldn’t cope stood out, but I must note them all. (Sadly the lack of a programme leads me to struggle a bit to assign names to roles).
Bunny Christie’s set is a box which displays material drawn on the floor and generated text and adverts, and utilises hidden doors and storage space very well, plus an inspired use of the front of the stage as a platform on the London Underground.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.
The technical wizardry on display has rightly gained plaudits but ultimately this is a show with heart, starting with that curious incident of the dog and the garden fork, and ending with a post-curtain call maths equation.