The Snowman Experience (Hyde Park Winter Wonderland)

In honour of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Raymond Briggs book of The Snowman, this new “experience” has been created by Backyard Cinema.  It claims to be a fully immersive experience in which fans of both book and the 1982 television film can enjoy the story in a “3-D” setting, as “if you are flying with the Snowman”.  In short, it claims something special: but is it?

The attraction begins with the now obligatory photographs which you can buy later in the gift shop.  Then to a waiting area where a trailer promises great things ahead, before you are ushered into a screening room to watch the first part of the film.

This area is dressed with sets of both the living room and the kitchen, plus windows leading to the outside.  A snowball hits the kitchen window in virtual form when the little boy throws it. The Christmas tree lights and the TV come on and off in synch with what we see on the screen.  When the Snowman turns on the hot tap, steam comes out of the one on the set.

But sadly no magic feeling when the Snowman comes to life at midnight, other than the spotlighting of a grandfather clock.

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Then to room two, which you reach through a forest of branches and crunchy ground, to stand and watch the bike ride and the  Walking in the Air flying sequence.  At the point the Snowman and the boy take off, the 4:3 ratio film is zoomed in and stretched to widescreen, and I’m sorry to say the quality suffered, spoiling many of the sequences such as the man with the bottle, and the appearance of the whale.

Finally, the North Pole party is viewed (back to original ratio, happily) in a set dressed with a party table, lights, and a brief appearance of the Snowman himself.

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This experience is an interesting idea, but to me it was a three-star experience showcasing a five-star film.  The power is in Briggs’s story and how it was adapted for the small screen.  That does come across – just – but the extras just aren’t magical or special enough for me, and I left a little disappointed.  Immersive experiences are thriving in the theatre and this needs to up its game to compete with them.

In the gift shop the best value items are a small Snowman for £9, one of the photos from the start for £10 (or four for £25), and small badge pins.  You can splash out on a beautiful Stieff Snowman for £69, or a large cuddly version for £26.  Or if you would like the anniversary editions of the book or film, these are here too.

Tickets for The Snowman Experience are £13, and the experience takes 45 minutes to complete, with shows starting every 20 minutes.  Entry to Winter Wonderland itself is free.

 


The Human League (Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith)

Rounding off the year with a second visit to see the League, following Kew the Music in the summer, this time at the venue many still call the Hammersmith Odeon.

With songs from nine of their ten studio albums represented, plus the ever-present Together in Electric Dreams, this concert again presented 90 minutes of slick nostalgic pop perfection.

There have been slight grumbles this year about the pricing of the tour. The last time the Human League visited London outside of festivals and outdoor shows was in 2016 at the Royal Festival Hall and that was at half the price.

We opted to pay the premium rate of £95 plus £12 booking fee. Those seats gave a good close view of the band, but the intricate block and video projection set must have had a bigger wow factor from the £55 tickets further back or up in the circle.

The Red tour – it is unclear why it is so called, or why the red-themed programme contains studio photos from several years ago – is not promoting any new album. The last new recordings were on Credo in 2010, and the setlist continues to retain the crowd-pleasers from Dare plus other well-known songs.

This said, it is always a pleasure to see Philip Oakey who retains his androgynous attractiveness and rangy baritone, and to experience the electropop band and familiar singing/dancing back-up from his collaborators of thirty-eight years, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.

The League know their fans and provide a good night’s entertainment. We would all love to see them produce some new material as a mature and evolving act rather than an 80s nostalgia band, but this is looking less and less likely.

Perhaps we should just celebrate Phil and his girls who remain comfortable in each other’s company, evoking memories in all of us of those years gone by.

The Human League were supported at this show by Midge Ure’s Electronica, who provided an accomplished opener including Vienna, Fade to Grey and Dancing With Tears in My Eyes, which finally got the crowd to their feet.

The setlist for the Hammersmith show: from Reproduction: Being Boiled; from Dare: Sound of the Crowd, Things That Dreams Are Made Of, Open Your Heart, Love Action, Seconds, Don’t You Want Me; from Hysteria: The Lebanon, Louise; from Crash: Human; from Romantic: Heart Like a Wheel; from Octopus: One Man in My Heart, Tell Me When; from Secrets: All I Ever Wanted; from Credo: Night People. Plus non-album songs: Mirror Man, (Keep Feeling) Fascination, Behind the Mask, and the Moroder-Oakey track Together in Electric Dreams.

All photos by Louise Penn.


The Height of the Storm (Wyndham’s)

Florian Zeller’s play The Father (presented, as here, in Christopher Hampton’s translation), addressed the issue of an old man, Andre, suffering from dementia, and the efforts of his daughter Anne to keep the situation as normal as possible.

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Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce

In The Height of the Storm, we again have a central character called Andre with a daughter called Anne.  He (played with sensitivity and flashes of power by Jonathan Pryce) is first encountered looking out of the kitchen window, the night after a storm, and we feel there is a loss pervading the house, somewhere, as Anne (Amanda Drew) talks of estate agents, managing alone, and flowers.

We are therefore somewhat wrongfooted at the appearance of Madeleine (a matter-of-fact Eileen Atkins, the centre of this home), wife to Andre and mother to Anne and to Elise (Anna Madeley), who joins her after a shopping expedition, leading to a flash of exposition about mushrooms, meals, and family togetherness.

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Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, and Anna Madeley

Whether we are seeing what is real, or whether one, or both, of the parents have died, we are never quite sure.  Some scenes seem to be running in Andre’s confusion where he imagines his wife has only gone to her vegetable patch while their daughters are grieving for her loss; other times he is a frustrated observer at his own memorial rites.

What is certain is the cornerstone of this half-a-century of marriage, into which even the interpolation of “The Woman” is ultimately meaningless; whether she is a lost love and mother of an unknown child, or whether she is a well-meaning representative of a care home, we are never sure, and even her name becomes mangled in a sequence of similar appellations.

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Jonathan Pryce

Pryce evokes the coming on of Alzheimer’s convincingly, from the stares of fear, the twitching, the repeated gestures, the angry outbursts, the confusion, and the ever-brief glimpses of a fragile lucidity.  Atkins, pursed-lipped and resigned, is the carer and the force to which he clings, and to which her daughters return, even when their presence is resented (the moment she angrily dismisses Anne with the f word is genuinely shocking, and funny).

As in The Father, there is a man who might be one thing, and might be another, and there is an uncomfortable and briefly threatening scene where we can taste the fear in the old man’s gait, and want nothing more than to reassure him that all is well.  Drew – who played Anne in The Father when I watched it – is very good as the elder child who tries to assume control of a situation she cannot understand any more than we can; and Madeley hovers on the sidelines, helpless to intervene or come to terms with her loss.

The last scene, to me, felt very final, as if these ghosts remained bonded in the house they had created, neither really knowing which one wasn’t there any more: perhaps Madeleine’s anecdote about the hotel was the fact no-one wanted to discuss?  What was really on the card with the flowers, and who dropped it?

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Anyone who has lost someone close will want to see this, and will be intensely moved by the writing and the performances.  Jonathan Kent directs, Anthony Ward designs (and the set brilliantly evokes an ordered mind which has started to disintegrate, with its chair, window, knick knacks, and extensive library), and Lucy Cohu and James Hillier do what they can with small but necessary roles.

This production belongs to Pryce and Atkins, though, who match each other moment by moment, and completely convince throughout.  This rather marvellous, quiet, and short (80 minutes) piece runs at the Wyndham’s until the 1st December.

Photos by Hugo Glendinning.


War Horse (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

As part of the commerations marking the end of the First World War, the acclaimed adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel returns to the National Theatre eleven years after its debut.  War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, adapted by Nick Stafford, designed by Rae Smith, and produced in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.

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Young Albert (Thomas Dennis) rears Joey, a part-thoroughbred horse, even persuading him to plough the fields on the farm. His father Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) is a feckless drinker, whose decision to stay home and look after the business in the last war has left him behind his successful brother, Arthur (William Ilkley). His wife (Jo Castleton) has become resigned to her marriage but fiercely protects her son and his interests.

Once war is declared, Ted smells money and sells Joey to the Army for use as a cavalry horse for sympathetic Major Nicholls (Ben Ingles): Albert vows that they will be together again someday, and eventually circumstance forces the sixteen year-old to follow cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) into battle, and thus the fortunes of both man and horse are followed until the day of Armistice.

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By utilising puppetry to bring life to Joey and his fellow battle horse, Topthorn, and to birds, a goose who provides comic diversion in lighter days, and the equine victims of conflict, this production provides an anthropomorphism which stays close to Joey’s narration of the original novel.

His bond with Albert, then Topthorn, and later with the sympathetic German captain Friedrich (Peter Becker) and French girl Emile (Joelle Brabban) is perfectly conveyed, and you quickly forget that these animals are brought to life by gifted puppeteers inhabiting their hearts and hinds.

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A sparsley dressed set backed by simple video projection conjures up Albert’s home farm, No Man’s Land, the parade ground, a French village, and a field hospital.  The sound and lighting design, the interludes with the Song Man (Bob Fox), and the acting of Dennis, Becker, Castleton and the sergeant (Jason Furnival) in particular, make this production an emotional rollercoaster, which does not outstay its 165 minute running time, and which treats the memories of serving men and animals in conflict with respect.

I previously saw War Horse during NT Live, in 2014, when it was still running at the New London Theatre.  It was a rather different experience to this one, but still powerful. If you wish to catch War Horse (2018), then you will need to try for Friday Rush or day tickets for the remaining performances (to the 5th January 2019).

After that, the production continues its UK tour, visiting Glasgow, Sunderland, Canterbury, Stoke-on-Trent, then visits Ireland (Dublin) and New Zealand (Auckland).  I wish everyone involved luck for a successful run, and I would urge prospective audiences to go and book for this superb adaptation.

Photo credits: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.

 

 


Mythic (Charing Cross Theatre)

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Daniella Bowen as Demeter. Photo by Marc Brenner.

This bright new musical takes the stories of the Greek Gods and presents them as you might not have seen them before.

Zeus (Tim Oxbrow) is having a party to honour his daughter Athena, and his daughter Aphrodite (Goddess of Love) is doing her best to gain his attention.  What better way than to bring along the sheltered Persephone, daughter of the banished Demeter (Goddess of the Earth) to Olympus?

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Michael Mather as Hades and the cast of Mythic. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Zeus is a strutter but ultimately a coward, and when Aphrodite’s power of love turns Persephone and the dangerous Hades (God of the Dead) to each other, and banishes Persephone to the Underworld, there are choices they all need to make.

In a brisk 80 minutes, seventeen songs contribute to this mainly sung-through musical, in which the twelve cast members all have a chance to shine, but especially Michael Mather (Hades) in his professional debut, Georgie Westall (Persephone), Daniella Bowen (Demeter), and Australian lawyer turned performer Genevieve McCarthy (a Paris Hiltonesque Aphrodite), who are all terrific and give their characters real depth.

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Georgie Westall as Persephone and the cast of Mythic. Photo by Marc Brenner.

You don’t need to know your Greek mythology to enjoy this, although if you do you will get an extra kick from seeing the Persephone in the Underworld take unfold, and you might like her positive spin on Charon’s boat trips on the Styx or the gardens of Hell.

The score by Oran Eldor and book/lyrics by Marcus Stevens hits the funny bone while still presenting touching moments around the growing relationship between a teenage girl and her devoted mother (“I don’t always like you, but I always love you”), and the problems of having the need to play favourites (Aphrodite is such a spoilt brat until she is able to see how her powers can be used for good rather than mischief).

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Genevieve McCarthy as Aphrodite. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Sarah O’Gleby directs and choreographs, and Chris Ma keeps tight control of a talented musical ensemble.  This has a lot of potential to grow and become a longer show,  but if you want to experience it as it currently is, and to support the company (Ben Lancaster, Ben Welch, Courtney Brogan Smalley, Eloise Davies, Jade Marvin and Jamie Ross fill out the remaining roles), go and see it now.

Mythic continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 24th November, and you can book tickets here.

 

 


Dave Gorman (Royal Festival Hall)

With a new show entitled ‘With Great Powerpoint Comes Great Responsibility Point’, Dave Gorman brings a hilarious new show on tour with lots of insight, more than a few surprises, a lot of Powerpoint slides, and a killer joke about a giraffe.

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It’s a long show – we excited the hall at 10.45pm – and one Nick Doody supports in a kind of subversive John Shuttleworth-style.  Not to give any secrets or segments of the show away, I can say there is a great pre-show routine which pays off after the interval, and a domestic with the often-quoted Mrs Gorman which ends up involving some old friends you’ll recognise from ‘Modern Life is Goodish‘ in a convoluted way.

You may get old favourites.  You may get new perspectives.  You may never look at one particular word with a silent letter in it again.  You’ll be talking about the giraffe joke for weeks.  A high point of Gorman’s appeal.

Ever since ‘Are You Dave Gorman‘ debuted on TV in 2001, Gorman’s modus operandi has been a laptop, a checked shirt, a clicker, and a lot of cheek.  His fast-moving and quirky mind makes connections between the most mundane items and utilises social media platforms to develop routines in bizarre directions.  Not for him the basic fruits of observational comedy beloved of so many stand-ups.

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A superior evening which will make you cry with laughter and keep you on your toes.

 


Twelfth Night (Young Vic)

You will get into the party spirit as soon as you step into the Young Vic Theatre and see the brightly coloured streets of Illyria. A professional cast of eleven are supplemented by a talented and lively community chorus who join in the musical numbers, adding to the general atmosphere of the place.  This is where young Viola finds herself washed up on shore the day the coffin of Olivia’s brother is taken away in a (white) van for his final journey.

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View from audience. Photo by Louise Penn.

The bare bones of the Shakespeare original survives in this adaptation, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah (who also co-directs with Oskar Eustis) and Shaina Taub (who wrote the music and lyrics for the big numbers). Some of the original verse survives in musical form, notably for Malvolio, while some is modernised into a more contemporary venacular, but without dumbing-down the text. There’s also good use of props including the van, crash barriers, window shades and confetti showers.

Viola (Gabrielle Brooks, who is excellent in her borrowed clothes and spectacles as the confused Cesario, displaying assumed masculinity as well as a growing feminine maturity) seeks employment with the Duke Orsino (Rupert Young), who conveniently lives next to a pub called ‘The Duke of Illyria’. He is enamoured of the frosty Olivia (Natalie Dew, who exudes a frustrated sexiness), who lives in mourning with her maid Maria (Gbemisola Ikumelo). Maria in turn lusts after the bawdy and boozy Sir Toby Belch (a menacing Martyn Ellis), uncle to Olivia; Olivia falls for the young ‘Cesario’; and Olivia’s hand is also sought by Welsh sot Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Silas Wyatt-Barke).

As if all the confusion is not bad enough, Viola has a brother who unbeknownsed to her, did not drown on their fated voyage. This Sebastian (Jyuddah Jaymes) was rescued by fugitive from justice Antonio (Jonathan Livingstone), who has an infatuation for his young friend. If you can believe that a boy and girl born as twins can be identical, you can see the mischief this play will bring, but the adaptation also plays with gender identity in musical numbers about ‘disguise being the devil’, about ‘what kind of man are you’, and in Feste’s lament while Orsino and ‘Cesario’ struggle with their feelings for each other, ‘is this not love>?’ – Melissa Allan, incidentally, makes a memorable Feste and adds to the gender-reversal in view.

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Viola, Orsino and Feste. Photo by Johan Persson.

Finally, Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Gerard Carey) has inflated delusions of grandeur, and he also gets a big top hat dance number, and the chance to look truly ridiculous in hideous yellow lycra. His vanity and assumption that his is an undeniable attraction to his mistress makes for the high points of the play, although his final exit is somewhat dampened by an almost genuine ‘I hope you will all be very happy’. Still, to see the character on a Segway, doing a big production number about ‘greatness’, and providing a truly farcical take on the letter scene which becomes almost piteous by the exchange about a light with Feste, is worth the admission price alone.

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Malvolio. Photo by Johan Persson.

All is well by the end of proceedings in the town of Illyria, with three married couples, two sisters, reunited twins, and a lively closing number. ‘The word on the street’ is that this musical reboot of the Bard is quite a success.

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Twelfth Night runs at the Young Vic until the 17th November 2018. Buy your tickets here.

You can listen to the cast recording of the production which ran in New York in 2016 here.


The Wider Earth (Natural History Museum)

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Marcello Cruz and Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to a pre-preview of some scenes from The Wider Earth, together with a Q&A with the cast and a chance to meet some of the amazing puppets from the Dead Puppet Society up close.

Now the production is fully open, and I’ve been invited back to report on the finished article.  The Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum has been turned into a theatre which seats roughly 300 people in a mix of floor and raised seating, and the rotating set we saw in previews has now been augmented by lighting, a backdrop for animation, and an immersive soundscape.

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Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

David Morton’s play has previously played in Australia, following periods of mentoring  in Cape Town with Handspring (creators of the puppets used in War Horse), and further planning in New York.  There is a cast of seven and a number of puppets with personality – including an iguana, butterflies, birds (small and large), fish, armadillos, a duck-billed platypus, and two large Galapagos tortoises.

Bradley Foster, as the young Charles Darwin leaving the chance of theological study behind to join a round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t have puppeteer duties; the rest (some of which have previous experience in the area) do well in making these curious creatures come to life.  It’s also his first leading role and he does well in portraying the young man who grows in knowledge and understanding as he sails.

As we move from Cambridge, where Darwin makes a friend of the Professor (Andrew Bridgmont) who can see his quality and inspires his curiosity, to the Manor where Darwin senior (Ian Houghton) only sees the priesthood as destination for his wayward child, the hill where Darwin promises fidelity and marriage to his beloved Emma (Melissa Vaughan), and onto the ship, we watch as sketches build the landscape behind the stage.

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Melissa Vaughan, Andrew Bridgmont, Matt Tait, Bradley Foster, Ian Houghton, Jack Parry-Jones. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Once on the voyage, captained by the religious and constrained FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones), Darwin starts to gain a new understanding of the world around him and the power of nature, as each island landing brings new creatures to study, with their modifications to suit their landscape.  The Revd Matthews (also Houghton), who is on a mission back to Tierra del Fuego to bring Christianity to the “savages”, sees only the power of the Lord, and Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), bought and paid for, only sees a need for returning to his home.  John Clements Wickham (Matt Tait), the second in command on the ship, attempts to be a voice of reason between opposing factions.

The Wider Earth does not assume to give answers about the power of creation, but sows the seeds for the lifetime work Charles Darwin undertook after stepping back on British soil after his five years on the HMS Beagle.  His theories of evolution and of natural selection started by studying beetles, rocks and fauna of unfamiliar terrains, but his account of his work on the Beagle brought him fame and attention.

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Cast of The Wider Earth. Photo credit Mark Douet.

If I had a small quibble about this show, it is that just occasionally the sound piped through speakers around the Gallery overpower the actors on stage, but this only affects a couple of scenes, and I don’t think anything of the sense of the production is lost.  The puppets can be clearly seen and appreciated due to clever lighting and the gifted manipulation of their cast operators, and the story is interesting and easily understandable, even to younger audience members (10 and above).

The programme (£7) is full of information on the genesis of The Wider Earth, and the journey it has taken so far.  David Morton skillfully directs his own work, and the music by Lior and Tony Buchen fits in with the nature theme without feeling superfluous or inappropriate.

The Wider Earth runs at the Natural History Museum until the 30 December 2018; you can purchase tickets here.


Company (Gielgud Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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Patti LuPone as Joanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Company continues at the Gielgud Theatre.


Why theatre is therapy for me

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Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again.  I have written about it here and here.

However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.

From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).

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My first theatre trips were at the Oldham Coliseum

I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up.  Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you.  London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.

This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.

No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health.  How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed.  How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.

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Image from PR Week

For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen.  Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.

I do plan my visits, though.  I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city.  If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.

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Lonely Anxiety – by Michelle Porucz

If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me.  So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.

I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage.  The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day.  The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme.  How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow).  The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.

Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks.  The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.

What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!).  Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.

All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away.  For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us.  I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul.  Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.

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Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both.  When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable.  Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.

If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.

Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery.  Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength.  And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.


Wise Children (Old Vic)

Stage view from the audience

I remember reading Angela Carter’s novel about the dancing girls ‘The Lucky Chances’, Nora and Dora, a few years ago and was very intrigued to see how it would be adapted.

I know Emma Rice’s work from her two decades at Kneehigh, including their production of another Carter work, Nights at the Circus, which I saw in Leeds in 2006.

I knew from this it was definitely possible for Wise Children to be adapted effectively. Rice now leads her new company, also entitled Wise Children, but this initial show – which has its press night on the 17 October – has a familiar feel and the creative flair we have come to expect.

Doras, Noras, Grandma and Lady Atalanta at home

When we meet Dora Chance, on her 75th birthday, just five minutes older than her sister Nora, she – played by Gareth Snook – tells us about their home before a party invitation arrives from the great actor Sir Melchior Hazard, their father, now a hundred years old but he has never acknowledged them.

In planning for the party we see the twins’ history played out for us from conception to toddling tappers, from puberty and first love, from disappointments to butterflies.

Young Dora, Grandma, Young Nora

This is a piece of dark, honest drama with period songs, a heavy dose of magical realism, and disturbing undertones. The book actually went a step further with obsession and implied incest, but this show tiptoes around that to some extent.

We meet the twins portrayed through three sets of actors, and casting is gender neutral with the teenage Nora and elderly Dora both played by men. Sometimes more than one set are on stage at once, which is effective and emotionally engaging.

Rehearsal footage with Young Dora and Young Nora

The Chance girls are brought up by their dead mother’s landlady, ‘Grandma’, and are taken care of by their father’s freewheeling brother Perry, who spends money on them but a strange relationship with both is implied, and there are long absences when he isn’t around.

Melchior, now married with frightful ginger twins of his own, reveres them but treats his older girls are curiosities only. Once they have moved from end of the pier jobs with Max Miller-lite comic Gorgeous George, they join their father in Shakespeare, but does he want them for themselves or for their odd dance-strip routine?

Nora grows to be an outwardly confident glamourpuss, sleeping around and hiding her feelings, while Dora stays in the background. They share a boyfriend, gifted to Dora by Nora when they hit eighteen, and continue to live as two halves of the same coin.

A toy theatre, faulty light bulbs, a caravan, orange scarves, an animated flight across London, and doubled up casting helps pull out the shady glamour of the footlights and the misunderstandings of family, sex and secrets.

This adaptation is joyous, always interesting, and even with a few remaining fluffs, mistakes and longuers which will probably be gone by press night, this is a stunning gem of a show with a hard working ensemble and an accomplished distellation of a complex book.

Many characters have been snipped and storylines slightly altered, but from the time we meet the Chances as puppet dolls through to old age, as they get – and miss – their own chances and where the living ultimately walk among the dead, we are walking with them.

Gareth Snook is surprisingly tender as the ageing Dora, and Omari Douglas is fantastic as the tarty mid-period showgirl Nora. Melissa James (showgirl Dora) and Etta Murfitt (elderly Nora) may be less showy, but it is interesting to follow the trajectory of these girls/women as their lives evolve.

Long-time Rice collaborator Mike Shepherd does well in a variety of roles, ultimately becoming the older Perry, and you can almost imagine young Sam Archer who plays Perry in his prime may have ended up this way; less convincing is the transformation of Ankur Bahl as Melchoir into Paul Hunter, who previously mimicked those smutty Miller jokes.

Mike Shepherd in rehearsal

Patrycja Kujawska is excellent as both Lady Atalanta and the boy shared by the growing twins; Katy Owen is a domineering Grandma with a soft heart, a lot of pride, and a fondness for stout, and it is fun to see the acting of Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud as the young twins Dora and Nora, such a contrast to the dreadful Imogen and Saskia.

Playing out after curtain call with ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ underlines the clever use of songs throughout – not simply the period pieces but also work by Louis Jordan and Cyndi Lauper. The greaseprint is thick but it can’t cover the cracks.

Well done to the company for hitting the sexual complexities of this novel, and in making a moment or two genuinely shocking even when the story paints a smile.

Wise Children is a special show which is well worth your time with sparkles, grotty dressing rooms, mirrors and a little bit of ‘Electric Avenue’. You will go out with a song in your heart and a tear in your eye.

Rehearsal photos by Steve Tanner. Production photos from the Old Vic Twitter account.


Eugenius (The Other Palace)

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

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

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

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

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Feris tries to impress the cool gang at school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The company of Eugenius

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

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

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

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

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


Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

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

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

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

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

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Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte

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

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Branwell painted himself out of his painting of his three sisters

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

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

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

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

An excellent and thought-provoking new musical, nevertheless.

 


Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre, Olivier)

Simon Godwin’s epic new production of the Shakespeare play of love between the Roman warrior Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra takes up residence at the National Theatre with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the ill-fated, middle-aged lovers.

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Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

We first find the vain Cleopatra by her opulent pool, with her handmaidens Charmian (Gloria Obiyano) and Iras (Georgia Landers).  She is hot for the soldier who is torn by his passion for her and his duty at home, where his wife Flavia has caused division and dissent before her death.

His decision to leave seems to be an act of bravado to impress his ‘Egypt’ rather than anything in supplication to the ambitious Caesar (Tunji Kasim) and the drunken Lepidus (Nicholas Le Provost), with whom he forms a triumvirate of power.

As is usual with the Bard, events are telescoped into shorter timelines: this period of time lasted ten years in historical record.  Antony, newly widowed, marries Caesar’s ambitious sister, Octavia (Hannah Morrish), and settles into the power he will eventually ditch to return to the bosom of Cleopatra, making her Empress to his over-reaching ego.

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Tunji Kasim and Hannah Morrish – photo by Johan Persson

The best supporting perfomances come from Tim McMullan (the loyal Enobarbus), Katy Stephens (a gender-swapped Agrippa), Fisayo Akinade (Eros, who excels in one amusing scene as a messenger and is tragic at his final hour) and Nick Sampson (schoolmaster Euphronius), although, for a change, most of the cast demonstrate an affinity with the blank verse and its meaning.

The sets by Hildegard Bechtler take full advantage of the Olivier’s revolve, with at least five changes including scenes which have characters rising and lowering into the depths of the drum; while the music by Michael Bruce and lighting by Tim Lutkin do much to give the sense of court opulence and the grime and ritual of the battlefield.

One fatal flaw for me, though, was the jarring change of pace when Antony’s final moments were played for laughs, which left the final act a sadly unmoving experience, despite the presence of the real snake and the dignity of Cleopatra’s exit on her monument.

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Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

Watch for the scope and scale of this project, and for the chemistry (and age-appropriateness) of Fiennes and Okonedo, who are glorious together, but also enjoy the small moments and performances which can fill out a play of this length – three hours and thirty minutes, which flies past.

 

 


The Talking Pictures TV Reel Streets Ealing Film Locations tour

On perhaps the wettest day to hit West London for weeks, we arrived at Osterley Park to find a Talking Pictures TV banner and a small marquee where we could pick up our brochure and picnic lunch.  It was lovely to finally meet Sarah Cronin, who does so much with her family to programme the weird and wonderful (and sometimes both) film and TV fare of Talking Pictures TV.

On a packed Routemaster (we discovered later from a friendly former bus driver that it had been a green bus in service, but now painted red), we set out for a three-hour tour of locations across Ealing (and a bit of Hounslow).

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Our bus and companion for the morning.

The route in our book wasn’t quite the route we followed – the driver decided to miss out Hanwell and visited Ealing Broadway a little earlier than planned – and the loudspeaker on the top deck was sadly inaudible until the final hour of the tour, but as a local couple my husband and I were able to roughly follow the progress of the tour from Osterley to Heston, to Southall, West Ealing, Ealing Broadway, South Ealing, Brentford then back to the park.

Highlights along the way included former cinemas the Palace Southall, Odeon Southall, and the former sites of the Walpole and the Empire in Ealing, and locations where “Richard Attenborough caught the bus in Seance on a Wet Afternoon“, “Benny Hill came past this building towards the camera in Who Done It“, and the gate “depicted in The Lavender Hill Mob“, to mention but three.

We spotted the former homes of legendary comics Sid James and Arthur Haynes (both on Gunnersbury Road, with blue plaques), and the alleyway used in Run for Your Money, as well as the corner where George Formby once walked in It’s in the Air and where the policemen marched in Carry on Constable.

Of course the main attraction was Ealing Studios, where so many great films were created and shot, from the early days of Will Barker in 1902 through to the present day.  This is currently the focus of an attempt to create a Walk of Fame to celebrate those stars and crew who made films across the borough.

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The tour brochure.

The booklet utilised film stills and brief descriptions, but I would have added a simple map of the route so it could be retraced by locals or more easily understood for those new to the borough.  It was also an ambitious route for the time and traffic, even on a Sunday morning, so future tours may wish to bear that in mind.  However, care and time had clearly been lavished on this event.

A tasty packed lunch of crisps, a cheese and tomato sandwich, and a traditional scone with clotted cream and jam (which we took home with us), plus a glass of bubbly on arrival and a Roses chocolate en route, was much appreciated, as were the two rest stops (although I think Southall Park disappointed with the loos closed!).

Our £45 tickets also included a tour of Osterley House, but we decided to call it a day after our mystery tour, planning to use the booklet on future travels around Ealing (and to tick off any films listed which we have not seen yet).

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Our yummy packed lunch.

Roll on next March, when the Renown Film Festival takes place in St Albans.


Sylvia (Old Vic)

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

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The Pankhursts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Wider Earth (pre-preview, Natural History Museum)

It was a pleasure and a privilege to witness an extended scene from the new drama The Wider Earth this evening, along with an opportunity to ask questions to the actors and creatives as a group and individually.

In the planning for five years, this play about the young Charles Darwin has made the journey from Cape Town to London, via New York and Sydney, and marries puppetry, a revolving set, a busy and talented cast of seven (three of which were previously in the National Theatre smash-hit War Horse), and projected animations.

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What we saw tonight was a set partly in situ in rehearsal mode, before it gets its masking, lighting rig, full staging, smoke effects, and all the bells and whistles.  We saw butterflies and a very personable iguana, and the seeds of a battle of wills between Bradley Foster’s Charles Darwin and Jack Parry-Jones’ Robert FitzRoy around the state of slaves from the British Empire.

Foster has a background in movement, having worked with Katie Mitchell at the Royal Opera House since graduating from drama school a couple of years ago: this is his first major leading role, and on this brief excerpt he looks very much like an actor to watch, engaging with the new creatures he finds on his HMS Beagle voyage with wonder, and unafraid to step up for injustice.

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Bradley Foster as Charles Darwin

The remainder of the cast both act and perform as puppeteers, a role Melissa Vaughan (Emma Wedgewood, who became Darwin’s wife) describes as “difficult” and “terrifying”, although Marcello Cruz (Jemmy) describes the puppets as “part of the cast”, and the novice puppeteers among the actors speak of their willingness to learn new skills and add to their repertoire.

The creatives from the Dead Puppets Society, Nicholas Paine and David Morton, were mentored by War House puppet supremos Handspring, and have developed a show which has played Queensland, Sydney Opera House, and now, thanks to the ingenuity and contacts of producer Trish Wadley, it is set to open in the impressive Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum.

At close quarters, the puppets are deeply impressive, and took life through computer programming and careful, thoughtful, human intervention.  The larger puppets take up to five cast members to animate (Perry-Jones described a sequence with a shark and a large sea creature which would glow with energy with full sound and lighting effects), the smaller, like the iguana we saw, develop their own personalities at the hands of one performer.

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Image from the original Australian production

The Wider Earth opens on the 2nd October and is booking until the end of 2018.  It is a chance to see a unique type of theatre production in the stunning surroundings of the Victorian palace of curiosities which is the Natural History Museum.

 

 


ITV Playhouse: A Splinter of Ice (BFI Southbank)

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Ian Hendry (Tony) and Judy Loe (Clemence)

Fay Weldon’s absorbing play teams a small cast headed by Ian Hendry and Annette Crosbie to explore the problems of middle-aged marriages and the preoccupations of the younger generation.

Tony (Hendry) is a writer and TV personality who has been married to Joy (Crosbie) for twenty years. She is a brittle and bitter woman of forty who regrets not having a child, and her closest friend Bridget (Zena Walker), is also her biggest irritation.

Bridget, a ‘suburban housewife’ with a dull marriage and four children, ‘two with asthma’, and a couple of weeks away puts the smile back on her face when she has a fling with Tony’s agent, Jude (Norman Eshley).

In the meantime, we know that young Clemence (Judy Loe) has got herself pregnant from her affair with Tony, fifteen years her senior, and isn’t keen on keeping the baby. Throw in a bohemian girlfriend for Jude, Julia (Amber Kammer), a randy cat, generational attitudes towards love, commitment, and abortion, and you have a provocative drama which may not feel entirely contemporary in the 21st century, but which still engages audience empathy even if the majority of the characters are dreadful, self-obsessed, selfish and stagnant.

Hendry, Loe and Crosbie in particular shine as the unhappily married couple and the ‘slut’ who the wife first tolerates, then sees as a threat, then realises her usefulness. Walker’s frumpy mother lights up when a chance to relive her girlhood offers itself, while Eshley and Kammer are quietly obnoxious twenty-somethings abjecting themselves of any responsibility.

Utilising several extreme close-ups and some clever scenes with minimal dialogue, we see the unfolding plot from each point of view, and get a measure of what the future holds for each and every character.


DVD audit pt 4


Exit the King (National Theatre Olivier)

This classic absurdist black comedy by Ionesco is brought to the stage in a new version by Patrick Marber, and covers the last hour in the life of King Berenger (Rhys Ifans), who has devoted his life to pleasure and presided over the destruction of his kingdom to the point that some of them are liquifying where they stand, and his ministers drown in a distant river during the span of the play.

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He has been a cruel, unthinking tyrant to his people, and now, in his fifth century, it is time for him to die. No longer can he command the weather, his palace is cracking apart, and there is darkness across the land.

The only survivors at court are his two wives, sensible Marguerite (Indira Varma) and flighty Marie (Amy Morgan), who flank the King’s opulent throne with smaller ones of their own, a palace Guard (Derek Griffiths), a cleaning woman straight out of Acorn Antiques (Debra Gillett), and a Doctor who also doubles as court executioner in the manner of a jovial Mengele – smiling as he tortures and torments.

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Derek Griffiths and Indira Varma

Ifans is reminiscent of a blend of Spike Milligan and Lindsay Kemp in his wig and white face, a clown without a joke, a pathetic figure with visions of grandeur and divine right, and Anthony Ward’s design makes the most of the Olivier’s space and the famed drum revolve, with a hint of the old Pepper’s ghost trickery when it matters most.

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Amy Morgan and Rhys Ifans

A wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving piece of theatre, expertly directed by Marber and paced with comic touches (the small lecture theatre table that folds out of the King’s throne, the cupboard in the palace walls full of sweepers and brushes), this is a competent revival which deserves celebration.

Buy the acting edition of Exit the King at Amazon UK


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