Shida (The Vaults)

There are one-person shows, and there is Shida. I went in fresh to this, knowing only it was a musical devised, written and performed by Jeannette Bayardelle.

The story of Shida, one character of many in this short (75 minute) piece, is a familiar one of innocence and knowing, rise and fall, ambition and pain, and ultimate survival.

Jeannette Bayardelle in Shida.

When we first meet her, she’s a child, playing hopscotch, a whirlwind of energy which her mom, her teacher, and new best friend Jackie have to keep grounded. Her destiny as a bright and precocious child is to be a writer.

Men mistreat her. Daddy has another four children with a wife, with Shida and her mom as “the other woman/the other girl”. Uncle Steve stands too close and ignores pleas not “to touch me like that”. White boyfriend Joe gets her hooked to her crack pipe.

Shida tells its story through song and characters, with the intensity of being right there in the room as events happy and traumatic chip away to reveal the vulnerable core beneath.

There in the room with Uncle Steve. There in the hospital three pivotal times. There on the streets, as Bayardelle breaks the fourth wall twice: one as Jackie, rubbishing Shida’s dalliance with a butch lesbian, then as Shida herself, begging tricks.

Jeannette Bayardelle in Shida.

Shida is an incredible piece of writing, years in the making and developed by the leading lady with her director Andy Sandberg. Accompanied by MD Noam Galperin and a small band, there is nowhere to hide in this boutique venue. The music is loud. The singing is jaw-dropping. The plot is emotionally devastating, in the end.

I’m glad this made the transition from New York, although I still find the venue a bit odd and definitely laidback (the matinee started fifteen minutes late and no reason was given). The use of props for characters: patterned skirt, dress, grad cap, beanie hat, specs, a box, a bracelet, a shawl, a book, brings the women to life. The men are voiceless.

But it was worth it. As Ms Bayardelle herself said in a brief break of character for a pause and water, “Jesus, this is hard work!”. It shows in every sinew, every bead of sweat and every big, big note.

True stories: Jackie/Jeannette did become a great singer, and her friend Shida conquered her demons.

Shida continues at The Vaults until 13 October.

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Operation Mincemeat (New Diorama Theatre)

Having grown up with the war film The Man That Never Was, I’m familiar with the basic facts of the operation which allowed British forces to hit back against the Nazi occupation by duping the enemy over Sicily.

The company of Operation Mincemeat

The company of Operation Mincemeat

Here, creative company SpitLip have created a musical about this very operation, which manages to be both irreverent (to the Germans, the British, and even a sole American airman) and respectful to those living through and lost in war.

Men play women (notably office secretary Hester, whose love letter is a small masterpiece, “why did we meet in the middle of a war … the roses miss you”), and women play men (a wonderful Montagu, all bluster and physical posturing, including top hat and high kick finale), but this company of five are adept at quick character metamorphosis throughout.

The company of Operation Mincemeat

The company of Operation Mincemeat

Charles Cholmondely is a geek who loves insects, a clumsy man whose limbs seem too large for his body, who dominates his scenes through his innate awkwardness. In two duets, one with the Montagu he idolises (“some were born to follow, but we were born to leave”), and one with young typist Jean, we see the measure of the man.

A Nazi jackboot song and dance heading up act two, a sleazy coroner who supplies bodies (“must have a head … must be a man”), a celebrity pathologist (music hall style), and even sultry club singer Velvet, all add to the colour of this accomplished show.

Board at New Diorama Theatre box office

Board at New Diorama Theatre box office

The design of the show (by Helen Coyston, Sherry Coenen and Dan Balfour) utilises hanging telephones, blocks, lighting cues, and a small band of three slightly off to the side. Operation Mincemeat, a mix of comedy and glam, “Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train”, is an absolute triumph.

SpitLip are three members of comedy troupe Kill The Beast (David Cumming’s Cholmondely, Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, and Zoe Roberts’ Bevan), with composer Felix Hagan.

They are joined here by Joe Malone (Hester, US airman) and Rory Furey-King (Jean, Velvet), with Ellen O’Reilly and Lewis Jenkins completing the band.

Set design of Operation Mincemeat
Set design of Operation Mincemeat

Everyone involved should be proud of this superlative show. It closes today, but surely has a future, as do SpitLip‘s musical creations: more please!

Man of La Mancha (London Coliseum)

In their tradition of star-led revivals of classic musicals, the ENO have now brought Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s Man of La Mancha back into London, with American theatre and TV star Kelsey Grammer in the lead.

Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha
Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha

Although it is true that Grammer’s long runs in Cheers and Frasier have undoubtedly gained him fans in the UK, and his earlier musical forays into Big Fish (at The Other Palace) and A Christmas Carol (catch it annually, on TV) have proved a certain familiarity with the medium, some disquiet has been expressed with his stepping into the shoes of Placido Domingo, Richard Kiley, and, er, Peter O’Toole (although I liked him in the film) as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.

With the big numbers The Impossible Dream, Man of La Mancha, and Dulcinea, quite a burden is placed on Grammer who is clearly an average singer at best: still, his charisma and acting ability carries the difficult role of Cervantes telling the story of a weak-minded man who tilts at windmills and thinks his destiny is “to right the unrightable wrong”.

Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha
Kelsey Grammer and Cassidy Janson

The leading lady at this performance was Cassidy Janson, who I have seen before in Beautiful and Chess, and although she lacked a bit of the indignant fire brought to the role by Julia Migenes in the glorious album recording, she is effective at the “kitchen slut reeking with sweat” who eventually believes in that “impossible dream”, and she sings It’s All The Same well enough.

Add Peter Polycarpou (remember the original Bui-Doi in the 1989 Miss Saigon?) as devoted and comical Squire Sancho Panza, and Nicholas Lyndhurst (the Starkeeper from previous ENO production Carousel and long-time TV sitcom favourite) as a sinister leading prisoner and a drunken innkeeper, with a chorus of talented lesser roles, and you have a show worth watching, although it is in no way worth the top asking prices.

The company of Man of La Mancha
The company of Man of La Mancha

The opening, set in a jail pit reached by a lowered metal staircase, feels grim, but comes to life as Cervantes states “I will impersonate a man” and brings the tale of battle and chivalry to life to save his precious manuscript in a trial by his peers.

There are bits and pieces in this uneven musical that give away its age – the gang attack on Alonza is pretty horrible – but the score largely stands up, with moments of telling comedy in I’m Only Thinking Of Him and A Little Gossip, and effective orchestrations of those big numbers.

Cassidy Janson and company of Man of La Mancha
Cassidy Janson and company of Man of La Mancha

Man of La Mancha continues until 8 June, and is heavily discounting and offering upgrades if you’re tempted. For me I was glad to catch a fully-staged version (directed by Lonny Price) which at least tries to do justice to a musical which is often dismissed as a piece of history.

Photo credits Manual Harlan.

Fanny & Stella (Above the Stag, Main House)

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.

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.
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.
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.
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.

Photo credits: Gaz at PGB Studios.

Sweet Charity (Donmar Warehouse)

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Highly recommended.

Little Miss Sunshine (Arcola Theatre)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hair The Musical (New Wimbledon Theatre)

A trip to the London suburbs to see the quintessential 60s musical, Hair.

As it was unfolding I started to think that we, in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the show, are now as far from the Vietnam conflict as audiences of 1969 were from the Great War when the musical Oh What a Lovely War was premiered.

I’ve seen three productions of Hair. The first, at Manchester Opera House in 1989, shocked my companion school pal who bleated “What have you brought me to?” during Woof’s solo song. At this point the musical was twenty years old, and it had been ten years since the film version – with a changed, but no less powerful, ending.

The original cast recordings from Broadway and London may sound like museum pieces now, but the songs transcend the years and make the emotional connection to audiences now.

The most recent production I saw before this one was the transfer from Broadway to the West End, ten years ago. At that show I introduced my husband to Hair and we ended up dancing on the stage in the finale!

So, a lot of history with me and this show. This new production ran at The Vaults last year, and now returns on a UK tour, of which Wimbledon is the first stop. The show is billed as new, fresh, and lively, and even at first glance the colours and slogans of the age of peace and love get everyone in the mood.

Jonathan O’Boyle directs and William Whelton choreographs, keeping Galt MacDermot’s music moving and the lyrics of Gerome Ragni and James Rado relevant and engaging, with the young cast dancing and weaving their way through those final innocent years.

Jake Quickenden (Berger), Paul Wilkins (Claude), Marcus Collins (Hud), Bradley Judge (Woof), Kelly Sweeney (Crissy), Daisy Wood-Davis (Sheila), Alison Arnopp (Jeanie), Aiesha Pease (Dionne) and Tom Bales (Margaret Mead) shine in the talented cast with my favourite songs “Hair”, “Good Morning Starshine”, “Where Do I Go” and “Let The Sunshine In” packing a definite punch.

If you’re open to the Summer of Love and the anti-war message (which somehow retains its currency), you will enjoy this production which doesn’t stint on the dramatics but also has fun.

Ben M Rogers’s lighting design of mainly reds evokes love, death and anger while the moments of rain and sleet add much to the overall ambience of Maeve Black’s simple set in which a cage and boxes for the guitarist and drummer have some prominence.

Will Hair survive to its 60th anniversary? I don’t know. What seems certain is that its wonderful score and its passionate message still has life in it yet.

Photo credits – Johan Persson.

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.

 

Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

“It’s impossible to imagine how a musical could be more epic” is one of the taglines of this new hybrid of rock musical and serious literary references which has charged into the Arts Theatre until 26 August.

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The House of Rose (not York or Lancaster, you’ll notice, this is some kind of medieval house where another kingdom is just around the corner) is ruled by a King and Queen in their dotage, with their heir, Prince Gawain, and daughter, Princess Hannah.

They also have a ‘Lady’ Isobel who seems to have joined their family somehow, and one Horatio who I swear said at one point he was an illegitimate son of the House, but he is the devoted servant of Gawain even though they love the same woman.

In the meanwhile the other Knights include the wet but decent Lord Hugo and the fiery Lord Palamon, and both want the Princess, although the battle and tension between them that should arise from this psychological conflict is not really explored, and is weakly resolved in Act Two.

Then there’s John the messenger boy, who acts as narrator/chorus at various points, and a couple of servant girls who have potential in their characters but remain undeveloped.

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This show tries to shoehorn in some classic rock songs as the plot progresses, but they are forced in with such ineptitude that the audience doesn’t know whether they should be laughing or not (one example of a character saying “would you dance, if I asked you to dance” to lead into the song “Hero”), and by Act Two there is a whole run of questionable creative choices starting with “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” over the body of one of the fallen Knights and ending with a bizarre staging of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

The singers are very impressive though, with Andy Moss as Gawain, Oliver Savile as Hugo, Chris Cowley as Palamon, Matt Thorpe (excellent rock vocals) as Horatio and Ruben Van Keer as John as the brave and testosterone-heavy Knights, while the ladies (Katie Birtill, Rebekah Lowings and Bleu Woodward) do a spirited version of “Holding Out For a Hero” in Act One.

Adam Pearce as the King also surprises with the heart-rending lament from the opera “King Arthur” in Act Two, but this whole sequence sticks out like a sore thumb and simply confuses, as did the reprise of “Bed of Roses” from the royal couple in their garden.

I would have liked more numbers which treated the plot with folk material (“Turn Turn Turn” did well), and with more tightly choreographed pieces – there’s one in each Act, which do have the sense of epic fire we were promised.

Also follow through on those relationships and tangled loyalties which would put meat on the show’s bare bones and give these characters much needed emotional investment for an audience – it is to the credit of the actors that we can engage now and then with their dilemmas, but it is frustrating to have to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Ultimately this feels like a show still in workshop mode which doesn’t know whether it wants to include rock songs ironically (like “Rock of Ages”), or whether to present the plot as musical comedy (like “Spamalot”). Quoting – or rather misquoting – Shakespeare and a whole host of other luminaries to make up for a weak book is not enough, and this needs a lot more thought to really succeed.

My thanks to Premier PR for arranging the tickets to Knights of the Rose.

The Go-Between (Apollo Theatre)

This new musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood takes its inspiration from the novel by LP Hartley (although many of the audience may be more familiar with the Joseph Losey film which starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and the young Dominic Guard).

This is a story of growing up, of first love, of grown-up ‘games’, of memories, of regrets, and about the stuffiness of the world in which young Leo Colston (‘my real name is Lionel, but don’t tell anyone’) finds himself when he goes to stay with his wealthy schoolmate Marcus and his family (mother, father, brother Dennis, and sister Marian).

We first meet Leo as an old man, fifty years on from his idyllic summer vacation, finding an old chest of memories and treasures in a dusty attic, and the moment of opening brings back the ghosts of the past of the Maudsley family, their servants, their friends, and the farmer Ted Burgess.  The young Leo is from poor stock and is overwhelmed by the convention of his surroundings, standing buttoned up and sweltering in his winter clothes until Marian plans to buy him a more fitting summer garb.

The only full song in the score, ‘Butterfly’, is sung by Crawford as older Leo while young Leo (last night, a marvellous Luka Green) parades his new suit of Lincoln Green, and it is an emotionally soaring moment – the singing might not be in as peak form as in Phantom days, but it fits with the character, and in fact Crawford, always on stage, always seeing when he saw when he was thirteen, and sometimes even interacting directly with his younger self, more and more urgently as act two strides towards the tragic conclusion, carries the show’s heart.

Leo becomes a ‘Mercury’, a messenger boy, a ‘postman’, first innocently taking a verbal message between the injured war veteran Trimingham and the object of his affections, Marian (Gemma Sutton, who previously appeared in ‘Gypsy’), and then, more dangerously, taking letters and messages between Marian at the great Hall and Ted, the tenant farmer who had been previously dismissed as ‘someone we don’t know socially’ by Mrs Maudsley.

The social gulf between Marian and Ted is accentuated even in the early scenes, where the dreadfully snobbish Marcus tells Leo not to leave clothes on the chair, but to throw them on the floor, ‘because that’s what Henry [the servant] is for’.  By the time the honour of the Hall is tested in the ‘gentlemen v tenants’ cricket match we know exactly where both sides stand, and why Leo, bored alone while Marcus is isolated by illness and keen to please the girl he is besotted by, gets embroiled in the forbidden love affair.

The Go-Between

Picture credit: Helen Maybanks.  Samuel Menhinick as Marcus, Luka Green as Leo.

The acting throughout this show is top-notch: Crawford is superb and your eyes might often drift to him, while you wonder what you would say to your own small self where you able to do so.  Sutton is good as the conventional miss who wants to break out from her restrictive dresses and the family tradition which means she cannot marry Ted, but has to marry Hugh Trimingham.

As Trimingham (‘nothing is ever a lady’s fault’), Stephen Carlile is excellent, keeping the stiff upper lip even when it becomes fairly clear he knows what is going on between the furtive lovers, tapping out a cigarette in a servant’s ashtray, and calmly answering Leo’s questions about the fickleness of women. Issy van Randwyck is the frighteningly icy Mrs Maudsley, although she may veer towards the pantomime at times.

The musical accompaniment is from one sole piano, played by Nigel Lilley.  This is supplemented at various points by the cast’s singing voices, which are beautifully arranged and performed, at times with their ‘Remember’ refrain a little reminiscent of ‘A Little Night Music’.   The voices are in Leo’s head but they are also living and breathing the moment he picks out a prop from the chest – his diary, a cricket bat, a ball, a branch of belladonna.

As farmer Ted, Stuart Ward is rough at the edges, but attractive enough to tempt the young Marian who has been surrounded all her life by stuffed shirts and the traditions where the men retreat to their port after dinner, and where she is expected to marry well and without complaint.  Ted offers her an escape from that, but it is an escape that can only be furtive and physical, which Leo starts to realise while remaining confused about the ways grown-ups believe (his discussion with Ted about the meaning of ‘spooning’ is as funny as it is toe-curling).

The Go-Between

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.  Stuart Ward as Ted Burgess.

I liked the lighting in this production, and the way that a limited set became something different – a tailor’s shop, a statue, a farm, a cricket field, a church – often by a resetting of chairs or the use of the cast to provide details such as the straw stack Leo slides down prior to his first meeting with Ted.   This only misfires slightly in the climactic scene where Marian’s secret is discovered, which is ‘revealed’ by the cast pacing around with umbrellas.  The show does take a while to get going, and the pace throughout is probably slower than most other musicals running in the West End, both young and old, but it is definitely worth seeing.

Direction is by Roger Haines, and design by Michael Pavelka, Tim Lutkin, and Matt McKenzie.

Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and Stage Door for providing the tickets.

 

 

Forbidden Broadway (Vaudeville Theatre)

The first main number in this uneven parody of the shows and stars of musical theatre is a spoof of Gypsy’s ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ rendered as ‘Everyone Thinks They’re A Critic’, which may be an attempt to put off us theatre bloggers, but no such luck!

‘Forbidden Broadway’ has been running in various guises for the past thirty years, with sections coming in and out depending on audience taste.  Now, I love my musicals, but I also love a good mickey take, and the ‘Les Miserables’ section of this show is one of the best I have seen, from the plaintive lament of Valjean to ‘Bring It Down’ (of the very high-pitched ‘Bring Him Home’, which must be the bane of every singer’s life since the character was created by the wonderful Colm Wilkinson) to a mischievous nod at the revolving stage, a bored Eponine ‘On My Phone’, and the Thenardiers bemoaning their lack of funny lines!

The rest of the show moves between spot-on send-ups of Broadway stars like Bernadette Peters (croaking through ‘See Me On A Monday, Please’), Angela Lansbury (not liking the modern Broadway in ‘I Don’t Want To Go’ – which started life as ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ in Dear World), Mandy Patinkin, Hugh Jackman, Idina Merkel, and – less successful – Kristin Chenoweth (not that well known here) and a tiny Elaine Paige in Toulouse Lautrec mode.  I felt the ‘Miss Saigon’ section was a little too cruel (especially The Producer) although the little helicopter is fun, while the section on ‘Once’ starts well but goes on too long.

Filling in the gaps are a nice piece on ‘Circle of Mice’ in ‘The Lion King’ lampooning the House of Mouse, Elphaba’s ‘Defying Subtlety’ in ‘Wicked’, a nip at the creators of ‘The Book of Morons/Mormon’, and a fun (but perhaps best if you have a long memory) competitive duet between Chita (Rivera) and Rita (Moreno) to the tune of ‘America’ in ‘West Side Story’.  There’s also a dig at ‘Liza One Note’ (rather unkind to the still-talented Liza Minnelli), and a very wicked and wonderful send-up of Sondheim’s wordplay in ‘Into The Words’.

I would cut the running time back a bit to stop the longueurs and padding that plague part of this show, but the five performers undoubtedly work hard – music director/pianist Joel Fram, Damian Humbley (Valjean/Cameron) and Ben Lewis, Christina Bianco (Peters), and the understudy Laura Tebbutt (Lansbury/Elphaba) standing in for Anne-Jane Casey.

‘Forbidden Broadway’ runs for one more week at the Vaudeville.

Divas in London: Dear World and Liza Minnelli

Two American musical divas are in town. 

Last night, the legend that is Liza Minnelli proved that despite the rumours, the ridiculous fourth marriage, and the plastic surgery, she still has that star pizazz to wow a crowd, and a packed Royal Festival Hall buoyed up by a large contigent of Liza’s gay fanbase certainly appreciated her 90 minute set.  Her big showstoppers from Cabaret and New York, New York of course made their appearances, and if Liza’s voice has faltered just a little over the years and her health has declined, she makes up for any shortcomings with sheer personality. 

Backed by a band she has obviously collaborated with for years, she gave us a varied set which included as highlights a cut song for the landlady in Cabaret – ‘So What’, Charles Aznavour’s superb story of a lonely gay female impersonator (‘What Makes a Man a Man’), ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ (a duet with her pianist), the touching ‘You’ve Let Yourself Go’, and her final unaccompanied ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’.  The lady may be breathless, scatty and more than a little bit manufactured, but Judy Garland’s daughter still puts on a magnificent performance, especially in her fast paced whiz song ‘Liza With a Z’, and she seems to have genuine affection for her fans, as they have for her.  It’s been a long time since I was in a crowd chanting the name of their idol as they wait for an encore!

The previous week I was at the Charing Cross Theatre to see Betty Buckley as the mad countess in Jerry Herman’s ‘Dear World’.  Buckley had been indisposed with a virus but was in fine voice at the performance I saw, especially in the lovely ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ and a song reminiscent of Mame’s Open a New Window, ‘Some People’.  Paul Nicholas was the other star name in the cast, and although he still has a certain charm, the songs he has in this show are not a patch on those given to the lead.  As the eccentric ladies who conspire against the wickedness of the ‘presidents’ and the oil seeker, Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock are funny and grotesque, while the greed of moneyseekers is beautifully played by Peter Land, Jack Rebaldi and Robert Meadmore (who I recall seeing back in the 1980s as Freddie in ‘My Fair Lady’).

‘Dear World’ is a musical adaptation of the Jean Giraudoux play ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’, which was itself filmed by Bryan Forbes with Katharine Hepburn in the lead.  Betty Buckley’s countess is a dewy eyed optimist with nerves of steel and a conscience, and if the character isn’t quite Mame Dennis, well there is still much to enjoy and appreciate for the rest of the musical’s residency in the capital.

Film review: Les Miserables, 2012

In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered the musical ‘Les Miserables’ at the Barbican Theatre.  Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the Boublil-Schonberg show takes Victor Hugo’s classic French novel and creates a through-sung sensation.

The film version has been years in the planning, and during the intervening years there have been two landmark concert versions, the 10th anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall, and the 25th anniversary at the O2.  Now Les Miz becomes a major movie, with Oscar nominations and critical acclaim.

But is it any good?

Hugh Jackman, veteran of musicals such as Oklahoma and Carousel, plays Jean Valjean, and it is a marvellous performance.  Those seeking the ‘stage Valjean’ can be happy, too, as the originator of the musical role (Colm Wilkinson) also appears in this film, as the Bishop.  Jackman’s only weakness is his lack of ageing over the years covered by the story, perhaps a sop to his movie leading man status.  Jackman even makes a good stab at the hardest song in the score, ‘Bring Him Home’.

The role of the policeman, Javert, is played here by Russell Crowe, who acts well, but his singing will not trouble memories of past performers such as the UK’s Roger Allam or Australia’s Philip Quast.  Crowe is something of a disappointment in my view, failing to engage emotionally with his big songs, such as ‘Stars’.

The ladies in the cast impress.  Anne Hathaway has been rightly feted as Fantine – she can’t sing with the power of a Patti Lu Pone or a Ruthie Henshall, but she puts across the absolute degradation and misery of her situation during her big number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.  It is heartbreaking.  As the winsome Cosette, Amanda Seyfried (last seen in film musicals in Mamma Mia) sings well and gives the character some well-needed life.  From the stage, Samantha Barks shows star potential as Eponine, and I hope she achieves the promising career she craves on the screen.

The young student rebel, Marius, will forever be associated with Michael Ball, but he is portrayed well here by Eddie Redmayne, a picture of innocence and very touching post-barricade action singing ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’.  The rest of the students, largely from stage productions of the show, are absolutely fine.

One weak link, given the darkness and realism of the film over the original stage show, is in the Thenardiers, the comedy relief, played here by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  They outstay their welcome and don’t really fit well in the piece.  Perhaps you have to be a fan of ‘Ali G’ to appreciate this actor.

What about the look and feel of the film?  It is very much on close-ups, swooping shots down from tall buildings, and realistic blood, snot, pus and excrement.  A sanatised show this is not.  See it on a big screen like the Imax to get the full effect.

Finally, a lovely touch is in the many small parts and cameos from stage musical stars throughout the film, including Mackintosh and Schonberg themselves in the final barricade shots.  The Les Miz film is pretty much a triumph – and if the acting overshadows the singing and the score (and around twenty minutes of material gets cut from the stage version) we still have the concert version from 1995, which is as close to perfect as we are going to get.

Theatre review: Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde, a musical now running at the Savoy Theatre in London, is based on the hit movie starring Reese Witherspoon as a dumb blonde who becomes a savvy, successful lawyer.

Ripe for musical treatment and a successful one?  I’ll say.  Although the initial premise is about as far from feminism as you can find – Elle Woods gets into Harvard Law School to chase after her heel of an ex-boyfriend, Warner Huntingdon III – we get to an amusing and satisfying by way of a few hummable tunes, two very cute doggies, and a psycho hairdresser lusting after a parcel delivery boy!

In the lead as Elle is Carley Stenson, who looks and sounds the part (she’s a Hollyoaks graduate), while support comes from Stephen Ashfield as nice student Emmett, Ben Freeman (ex-Emmerdale) as Warner, Peter Davison in another musical role as Professor Callahan – channelling Jolson in his solo number, Natalie Casey as Paulette the hairdresser, Tricia Adele-Turner as Vivienne, and (on the night we went) Jane McMurtrie as Brooke, the keep fit expert and maybe murderess.

Legally Blonde is big, boisterous and fun, and although it is undemanding fare not requiring any thought from the spectator, it is hard not to leave without a smile on your face.

Theatre review: Dreamboats and Petticoats

This feel-good musical set in the early 1960s in a youth club has been running at the Playhouse Theatre in the West End of London for a couple of years now.  As with other examples of the sixties anthology musical (‘Shout!’, ‘Hold Tight!’) it is rather short on story but bursting with pep and energy.

The story, flimsy at best, shows Bobby finding his old gramophone in the loft and starting to explain to his granddaughter about his brief inclusion in a band while at school, singing ‘Let’s Dance’.  Brief, that is, because almost immediately after getting the job he is eclipsed by bad boy Norman who belts out ‘The Wanderer’ and gets the girls in a frenzy.  Bobby, with his school uniform and unrequited love for the pretty but flighty Sue, doesn’t get another look-in.

But there’s a songwriting competition coming up, and with the help of geeky swot Laura, can Bobby make good and produce something fit for his idol, Roy Orbison?

‘Dreamboats and Petticoats’ works best when it isn’t trying to be clever.  There’s a nice scene where Bobby and Laura sing each other their attempts at writing songs but skirt around their own feelings for each other, and another where Bobby’s dad talks of his own parents’ advice not to take the first girl who comes along, but to ‘Shop Around’.  Character names allow obvious songs to be incorporated – ‘Runaround Sue’, ‘Bobby’s Girl’ (but curiously not the early 1960s ‘Norman’) – while the good boy / bad boy, good girl / bad girl storyline really makes the ending obvious.

Still, the cast work hard: on the night we went, Norman, Sue, and Babs in the band where all understudies, but perfectly OK, and most of the crowd were on their feet for the final medley of  ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and ‘At The Hop’.

If you’d like a good time, and one which will put you firmly back in the time period that was the start of the swinging decade, this is the show for you.

To book tickets for this show visit Cheap Theatre Tickets – Playhouse Theatre and to see reviews please visit Dreamboats and Petticoats Tickets