The Bridges of Madison County (Menier Chocolate Factory)

The 1995 film is one of my all-time favourites, with an easy and passionate chemistry between stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

Now, under the direction of Trevor Nunn (who was in the house last night), the musical version by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman has set up shop at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Jenna Russell as Francesca and Edward Baker-Duly as Robert.

Jenna Russell and Edward Baker-Duly in The Bridges of Madison County

This story of middle-aged soulmates finding each other too late and for too short a time has lush melodies, but lacks the passionate aspects of the tale and clogs the show with too much extraneous material such as Francesca’s family at the fair, Robert’s waitress ex-wife, and a totally unnecessary opener to act two which has the feel of a country hoedown.

The Bridges of Madison County should sink or swim on the relationship between the Italian housewife who feels taken for granted and the freewheeling photographer who finds himself lost in her driveway: you don’t need anything else.

Gillian Kirkpatrick and Paul F Monaghan in The Bridges of Madison County

The songs are good, here and there, although I felt Russell struggled now and then with both the accent and some of the range. She also, sadly, lacked the yearning and emotion which should be present in Francesca, even we see in flashback how an early personal tragedy pushes her into a marriage of convenience.

Baker-Duly does better as Robert, although his portrayal is rather one-note, a bit cocky and far too like EE’s Kevin Bacon in his straggly hair and ever-present smile. He feels more calculating than conflicted, and I didn’t really engage with him until his final solo number.

Although there is undoubted talent in the character parts – Gillian Kirkpatrick as nosy neighbour Marge, Shanay Holmes as the ex-wife Marian who sings in her waitress uniform, Paul F Monaghan in fine blues voice as Charlie – the show still needs a judicious trim from 2 hours 45.

Jenna Russell and Edward Baker-Duly in The Bridgesof Madison County

The set, by Jon Bausor, is far too complex, busy, and given to distracting noises at changeover and during quieter moments. It also requires half the audience to look over their shoulders for some scenes. Better, when you see through the clutter and the projections, is Tim Lutkin’s understated lighting design, full of warm purples and passionate reds.

Edward Baker-Duly in The Bridges of Madison County

Curious, too, was the absence of music in Francesca’s house. A woman of her ability to feel would not be content with just the weather report! I also felt the loss of key scenes between the leading couple that would make us care a bit more.

Ultimately, I wasn’t sure why this material has gone from novel and film to a stage musical. Nunn has form with the musicalisation of novels for the stage, but The Bridges of Madison County has more of the notorious 2008 production of Gone With The Wind about it than the mighty Les Mis.

The Bridges of Madison County continues at Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September. Photo credits by Johan Persson.

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Fiddler on the Roof (Menier Chocolate Factory)

A welcome revival for Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical about a Jewish village where tradition still reigns while the world slowly and malevolently changes; specifically for the family of Tevye (Andy Nyman) who sells dairy goods to his neighbours, his wife Golde (Judy Kuhn) who he may love after 25 years, and their five daughters: Tzietel (Molly Osborne), Hodel (Harriet Bunton), Chava (Kirsty MacLaren), Shprintze (Lia Cohen) and Bielke (Lottie Casserley).

Andy Nyman as Tevye.
Andy Nyman as Tevye.

The elder three daughters are all of marriageable age, but as the children of a poor dairyman they have to rely on the local matchmaker, Yente (Louise Gold) to find them a husband their papa will approve of. But times are changing, and first one daughter, then another, and another, make their own choices, rather than letting their fates be dictated for them.

Against this background the musical comes to life in a clever use of the small space in the Menier, a big of scene setting at one end of the stage, and open floor for dancing and big musical numbers. The most well-known titles, “If I Were A Rich Man”, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, work well, but the sequence where the Russians and the Jews uneasily spar together in the local tavern is a triumph of male bravado and dance athleticism (“To Life”) which utilises the original choreography of Jerome Robbins.

Judy Kuhn, Andy Nyman and company.
Judy Kuhn, Andy Nyman and company.

Nyman, Kuhn, Osborne, Bunton and MacLaren all have their chance to shine as the story progresses, as do Joshua Gannon as Motel the tailor, Stewart Clarke as student Perchik, Matt Corner as soldier Fyedka, Dermot Canavan as Lazar Wolf the butcher, and gossipy Gold. From the sublime “Now I Have Everything” to the ridiculous “Tevye’s Dream”, the company never mis-step, and in the sequences which require a chorus effect to the songs all the cast members are shown to be gifted singers and actors.

The company of Fiddler on the Roof in rehearsal.
The company of Fiddler on the Roof in rehearsal.

Nyman’s Tevye is a pragmatic man, who thinks nothing of asking his God for help in a crafty prayer, or admonishing him if something goes wrong, and his love for his daughters finally outweighs his “Tradition”. Even with the downbeat ending, you feel there is hope for this resilent man and his family, wherever they find themselves across the globe.

Trevor Nunn directs this warm, engrossing and accomplished revival, which runs until the 9th March 2019.

Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Set in the round, this tale of the circus’s greatest showman boasts a memorable score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart.

The Menier has turned the bar area into a museum of curiosities ‘on loan from the estate of PT Barnum’, into which ringmaster Dominic Owen kickstarts the show by looking for Tom Thumb – in the auditorium itself there are coloured lightbulbs, posters and a circus ring with a tiny stool and piano.

The original productions of Barnum, starring Michael Crawford and Jim Dale, are renowned for their comic timing, showmanship and stunts. This production is high energy but falls a bit flat in its leading performance; Marcus Brigstocke interacts well with the audience in the second half, but his voice is weak and he looks more like a fish out of water than the centre of attention. If Barnum doesn’t steal the show (although he did make it across the tightrope in one go), then there’s something not quite right.

As the ladies in his life, Laura Pitt-Pulford makes a steely yet touching Chairy, while Celinde Schoenmaker hits the high notes as the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind.

In the ensemble, Owen catches the eye throughout with tumbles and liveliness, Preston and Kelsey Jamieson do lifts and fire work, and the company perform a range of routines from a brass band and tap dancing, to aerial hoops and basic magic tricks (some of which involve the audience at the start).

Recommended even with the central miscasting, director Gordon Greenberg uses the space well and Harry Francis dances with aplomb as Tom Thumb. There’s even a tiny toy train to represent travel and a range of model buildings hoisted on hooks to show location, and ‘a real live elephant’. It’s all rather charming and displays quite an amount of what Barnum describes as ‘humbug’.

Lettice and Lovage (Menier Chocolate Factory)

This revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980s play is one of two productions running at the Menier at the moment, both directed by Trevor Nunn.  It is the story of a theatrical tour guide who embellishes historical fact to entertain those who visit Fustion House (‘fusty old house’, in our minds).

The first scene is replayed four times across a fifteen minute slot, in which Miss Douffet makes the most of an Elizabethan legend on an old staircase, delivered in an exaggerated stage voice.  Douffet is played by Felicity Kendal, who wears loud and vibrant clothes and has tattoos on her foot and ankle.

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Her over-the-top style gets her in trouble twice, first with a tetchy historian who asks for her sources, then with a civil servant who commands her presence in the offices of the Preservation Society.  This is the staid Miss Schoen, whose father was a German art publisher, but who hates theatrics.  She’s played by Maureen Lipman, who is stiffly arch, especially in her exchanges with twittery secretary Petra Markham.

The turning point comes with a very unconvincing prop cat, and a wildly addictive drink which contains the herb lovage.  It turns Miss Douffet almost human (and we discover her forename is Lettice), and allows Miss Schoen to unbend as she becomes more tipsy (and her forename is Charlotta).  Lettice talks of her mother who played both Richard III and Falstaff – with utilisation of the same pillow for costume.  Lotte tells of a bomb plot she and a boyfriend had in their youth to destroy the hated Shell Building.

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The final act is bizarre, with Sam Dastor as a solicitor defending Miss Douffet (she engages him because his name is Bardolph, which suggests something rather different to the reserved man we see before us).  It would spoil the fun to say why she has been arrested and charged, and we are caught up in an amusing piece of roleplay re-enacted for us in the final few minutes.

This is not a ground-breaking play, but it is acted well, and is a perfectly reasonable piece of entertainment.  I liked the relative simplicity of the sets, which include a picture frame which showcases the sense of where we are (the exterior of Fustion House, the terraces of Earl’s Court), and found the performances on point for the ridiculous plot.

She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

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A delightful revival of the Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical is running on London’s fringe right now, and I heartily recommend it.

You might have come across this story before, in the films ‘The Shop Around The Corner’, ‘In The Good Old Summertime’ or ‘You’ve Got Mail’.  You might have seen the versions shown on television in 1978 and on digital live-streaming last year.

Georg Nowack (played at the performance I saw by understudy Peter Dukes, who was rather good, if a little plain) is an awkward bachelor who serves as one of the sales clerks in the perfumery of Mr Maraczek (Les Dennis, whose decision to use a truly awful accent colours his role) in 1930s Budapest.  He’s been corresponding with an unknown lady after placing an ad in the lonely hearts column, and he’s going to meet her soon for the first time.

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Amalia Balash (a perky Scarlett Strallen, who steals the show with her “Vanilla Ice Cream”) comes to the shop for a job and instantly finds herself at odds with Nowack, and she is also corresponding with a ‘Dear Friend’ which we quickly find out, is her nemesis himself.  In the meantime, Ilona Ritter, a vision of bad hair dye and thick make-up (played with scene-stealing effervescence by Katherine Kingsley, who has a whole library of comic expressions and barely disguised malice) is dating smarmy cad and fellow shop-worker Steven Kodaly (Kingsley’s real-life spouse, Dominic Tighe, who is perfectly hissable) and watching her life slowly slip away.

The main cast is rounded out by Ladislav Sipos (Alastair Brookshaw, playing the twitchy family man who ‘never disagrees’, with aplomb) and a new discovery, Callum Howells as delivery boy Arpad Lazslow, whose “Try Me” is an Act 2 delight.  Norman Pace has joined the cast as Head Waiter, and he’s lots of fun in the restaurant scene, and surprisingly strong-voiced.  I also liked the couple who found romance through reading: “Victor!”  “Hugo!”

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For a fringe production in a small venue, a lot of thought has gone into the revolving sets and production design, and Paul Farnsworth definitely deserves praise for his sparkles, bright colours, and leaf/snow combination indicators of the change of the seasons.  Fine choreography too, and a more-than-decent house band give the fifty-something songs life and breadth (although the repetitive ‘Thank you madam’ refrains could easily be chopped after the first couple of times).  If only the wigs had looked a little more realistic, it would have been quite perfect; but this is a fun little confection that certainly raises a smile in this winter season.

‘She Loves Me’ continues at the Menier until the 4th March 2017.

Road Show (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 16 July 2011.

Stephen Sondheim’s newest musical for the London stage is not ‘new’ at all, really.  Although the story of the Mizner brothers is now called ‘Road Show’, it dates back to 1999 and has previously been staged in the United States as ‘Wise Guys’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Bounce’.  Every time it has tanked under critical derision and lacklustre audience interest.

David Bedella in Road Show.
David Bedella in Road Show.

With a cast of thirteen, a band of eight musicians. and a staging which has the audience on either side of the action, we first meet Addison Mitzer (Michael Jibson) on his death-bed, where his friends and relations sing about how his whole life has been a ‘Waste’.  His energetic younger brother Wilson (David Bedella) has the charm and the ‘something’ which keeps him afloat through gambling and scams, while Addison follows a more sure and steady path – only really coming into his own when he meets the young Hollis Bessemer (Jon Robyns), an artist with money who quickly becomes his lover and business partner.

The songs aren’t particularly memorable when you consider Sondheim’s major works and the major songs which have come from them – still, ‘Isn’t He Something’ (a song from Mama Mizner about Wilson) and ‘You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me’ (a love duet for Addison and Hollis), have charm.  It is just that, despite the best efforts of the cast, who clearly work hard, and the rethinking of the production as a major piece, all thrown money, furniture moving, and striding about, something is still not quite engaging enough.

I was interested to see Julia McKenzie, a talented Sondheim alumnus herself, in the audience – I wonder what her verdict on this show would be?