Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

This has been running in London for two years, and arrived with a great fanfare after Broadway success and Tony wins. It’s still being advertised as “the room where it happens”, but is it really all that?

This is my first visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, which has been described as the greatest musical ever made. (Spoiler: it isn’t). Money has clearly been poured into this production by the bucketload, and it shows. Everything is slick. The lighting, the sets, the music, the choreography.

The theatre, although cramped in the cheaper seats, has been sensitively renovated, and the show is clearly selling well to tourists from outside the UK, and repeat visitors. It seems to be popular amongst younger audiences, perhaps because of a reliance on modern music forms like hip-hop, which represent roughly 50% of the score.

The truth is, I just didn’t care about Alexander Hamilton, so when he faces adversity like blackmail, family bereavement and a Salieri-Mozart type relationship with “your villain” Aaron Burr, I find it hard to get emotionally involved.

Alexsnder Hamilton and company
Alexsnder Hamilton and company

The cast work hard – I liked Sufiso Mazibuko as Burr (great voice throughout) and Rachelle Ann Go as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, in particular – but the lack of a central character to click with weakened the piece as a whole. Light relief from King George III (Gavin Spokes) was fun but frankly out of place, and Angelica (Sharon Rose), who saw Hamilton first but let her sister marry him, was well acted.

Musically, Hamilton doesn’t know where to put itself. The hip-hop opening, the rap trash talk over the Constitution, the comic number with a catchy refrain for the King, and more traditionally melodic musical numbers sat uneasily together, and made the show as a whole drag badly in places.

Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy
Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy

Photos by Matthew Murphy. Hamilton continues at the Victoria Palace.

Please note that the paperless ticketing system currently in operation comes to an end in early December, from which time tickets will be posted out. I’m told by a staff member at the Victoria Palace this will increase ticket touting but, be sensible if you want to see Hamilton. Prices range between £30-200, so there is something for everyone, and the view from the grand circle is absolutely fine


Black is the Color of My Voice / Soul Sessions (Watermans Arts Centre)

Apphia Campbell’s play inspired by the life of Nina Simone returns to the London stage with a one-off performance at the Watermans in Brentford, under their Friday Nights Live umbrella.

The character we see on stage is not exactly Simone, although the songs sung are associated with her, including Mississippi Goddamn and I Put a Spell on You (written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose version we hear played on a taped selection of songs covered by Simone, before the show starts). This lady becomes “Mina Bordeaux”, changing her name for the same reasons as Simone, to protect her church family from the association with “the Devil’s music”.

Campbell, in hair wrap and pulling items from a battered suitcase, pulls us into Mina/Nina’s world, imitiating her Bible-thumping mother, reinacting the classical concert where her parents were evicted from their prime “whites-only” seats, girlishly gushing over innocent love letters from her first boyfriend, recounting the vicious assault from the man who became her husband.

In song, she is no imitator but rather a celebrator of the woman who has clearly given her inspiration to become a singer and an activist (her follow-up show, Woke, is far more concerned with matters of race). The title of the play, Black is the Color of My Voice, both references the fact that she, Campbell, and Simone are both black women, but also the gentle Scots folk song which Simone made part of her regular repertoire in 1959.

Mina is a precocious talent, playing piano from the age of three, and dreaming of playing Carnegie Hall as a concert pianist. The fame she seeks comes with the civil rights movement and her songs of protest, fighting for the visibility of “my people” in the shadow of the speeches of Martin Luther King.

Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux
Apphia Campbell as Mina Bordeaux

Soul Sessions, which has sometimes been performed together with the preceding play, was included in yesterday’s ticket as the second half of a double bill. Campbell returns to the stage in a long red gown and pearl necklace, engaging the audience in chat and delivering a range of Simone songs (accompanied by her pianist Tim Shaw).

With “I Loves You, Porgy” (Gershwin), “My Baby Just Cares For Me” (Donaldson and Kahn), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her, but better known here for the hit version by The Animals), “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” (MacDermot/Ragni/Rado), there is a flick of recognition and even some singing along – but the power of both Simone’s words and Campbell’s performance comes through in “Four Women” before the inevitable encore of the anthemic “Feeling Good” (Newley and Bricusse) which Simone truly made her own.

Soul Sessions is largely playful and teasing, stripped back to a sleek presentation by this confident performer who has even “forgotten my shoes”. It’s a relief in a way after the draining play we saw in the first half, a contrast to the hard life we have witnessed. I highly recommend both shows (which run at 70 minutes and 50 minutes respectively), but they can clearly stand on their own.

Apphia Campbell
Apphia Campbell

Great musical film stars

The BFI Southbank has a new season of film musicals running from October – January, which is accompanied by screenings across the country, at the Waterloo IMAX, and in the Mediatheque.

For several months I have been assembling a list of film musicals on my Letterboxd account, now numbering over 7,000 titles, of which I have seen approx 55%. I consider myself a huge fan of the genre, and have quite a wide definition of what a “musical” is.

This post will introduce you to fifty names you may wish to check out – I will not be talking about Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, but I will mention some names from the Golden Age of Cinema (1929-1969) from a range of studios, countries, and styles.

There are many more, and I wish you fun in your own voyage of discovery.

Child stars

Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Jane Withers, Bobby Breen, Mitzi Green
From top left, clockwise: Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Bobby Breen, Mitzi Green, Deanna Durbin

Shirley Temple. Perhaps the ultimate movie moppet, Temple was a triple threat from a tot, singing, acting, and dancing. Avoid the colourised versions of her classic films, but The Little Princess is a good starting point.

Deanna Durbin. With an operatic singing voice, an earnest manner, and a liking for wearing boleros, Durbin was a teenage sensation, usually causing bother in the nicest of ways. Try Three Smart Girls.

Jane Withers. Once the highest grossing star at Fox, Withers was a cute little imp with a winning personality and a lot of pluck, who could handle comedy as expertly as a song. Meet Withers in Paddy O’Day.

Bobby Breen. An acquired taste for sure, but Breen headed up a number of films for RKO as a boy soprano. By sixteen he had left the screen but catch him in Rainbow on the River.

Mitzi Green. Starting on stage and in films at a young age with an old head, she had a knowing style when singing her songs, and could do impersonations as well. Have a look at Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round.


Bing Crosby. You may well know Crosby from his many million-selling records, from his Christmas shows for TV, or that final duet with Bowie. But you can appreciate the king of the crooners in two goes at Anything Goes, for a start, first opposite the wonderful Ethel Merman, then the perky Mitzi Gaynor.

Rudy Vallee. The first modern “pop star” to gain a teen following, Vallee’s appeal may look quaint now, but he made an early impact in The Vagabond Lover, and held on in films for another forty years.

Dick Powell. Juvenile lead of numerous Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s, often opposite dancer Ruby Keeler, Powell can be best appreciated in Gold Diggers of 1933 (showing on 1, 4 and 9 November at BFI Southbank) and later in life became a good actor in more hard-boiled fare.


Richard Tauber, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy, Lily Pons, Grace Moore
From top left, clockwise, Richard Tauber, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Grace Moore, Lily Pons

Richard Tauber. Austrian-born tenor and actor who worked extensively in Britain. Well known for his recordings of romantic songs from the operatic canon, you can get an idea of his appeal in Heart’s Desire.

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Bracketed together due to their successful series of films at MGM, this pair were known as the “singing sweethearts” and hugely popular in the late 1930s. My favourite of their films is Sweethearts. Macdonald also worked well with Maurice Chevalier in the early 1930s: see Love Me Tonight, and Eddy had a hit opposite Rise Stevens in The Chocolate Soldier.

Lily Pons. Pons came from the Met Opera and although she appeared in just four films, displayed a winning personality and beautiful vocals. Try That Girl from Paris.

Grace Moore, the “Tennessee nightingale”, worked on Broadway and at the Met, and was the first opera diva to succeed on screen in the sound era. Have a look at When You’re in Love, where Moore also demonstrates a flair for comedy.

Torch singers

Helen Morgan. Although Morgan’s story was allegedly told on screen some years after her death, she is often unjustly passed over. A great actress as well as a singer, she can be seen at her best in Applause.

Romantic heroes

Ramon Navarro. Navarro had been a Latin lover in the silent era, but with a pleasant singing voice he transitioned well into the age of musicals. His films are rarely screened today, but still stand up well and retain their entertainment value. You can judge for yourself in Devil-May-Care.

John Boles. With a career of close to thirty years, Boles did well in early Hollywood musicals and transitioned into supporting roles. A veteran of stage and screen, he’s seen at his most effective in Rio Rita.

Musical comedy

Cicely Courtneidge, Wheeler and Woolsey, Marjorie White, Lupino Lane, Judy Canova
From top left, clockwise, Cicely Courtneidge, Marjorie White, Lupino Lane, Judy Canova, Wheeler and Woolsey

Cicely Courtneidge. Gangly and amusing, and quite the queen of British musical comedy in the 1930s, often playing opposite her husband Jack Hulbert. A hard working comedienne, she worked for years in both musical comedy and music hall before switching to non-muiscal roles later in life. There’s only one song in Me and Marlborough, but it’s delightful.

Wheeler and Woolsey. RKOs biggest money-spinners in the early talkies, musical comics Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey came from vaudeville into films when Rio Rita was brought to the screen, and were retained for a series of titles of variable quality, especially once their risque humour was curtailed after 1935. I would recommend starting with Diplomaniacs.

Marjorie White. A performer who shone brightly for a very short time, she gives a kick to any film she appears in, and was a vibrant screen personality. You may enjoy her in a supporting role in Sunny Side Up.

Judy Canova. Often seen as a country bumpkin character, she could sing, act, cavort and yodel. A major star for Poverty Row studio Republic, her films are always enjoyable and now and again she is allowed to showcase a song which isn’t purely there for comic effect. I liked her in Untamed Heiress.

The Lupino family. Whether Stanley, Barry, Wallace, Ida or Lupino Lane, this British family came from the stage to liven up early musical comedies, and Ida went on to star and direct in films in the US. Spot Lane in The Love Parade.


From top left, clockwise, Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Janet Gaynor
From top left, clockwise, Alice Faye, Marion Davies, Janet Gaynor

Marion Davies. Often derided theae days for her supposed inspiration for the terrible singer in Citizen Kane, she was not only a gifted comedian but also a fine singer who was often utilised badly in films which just didn’t suit her. I enjoyed her in The Floradora Girl.

Janet Gaynor. The sweetheart of the silent films moved seamlessly into talkies, despite having quite a thin voice. Personality won the day, and she also preceded Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. Have a look at Adorable.

Alice Faye. One of Fox’s most glamorous blondes, she shone in biopics and early musicals in which she was very much the focus. Try an early title from her career, 365 Days in Hollywood.

English stars

From left, clockwise, Jessie Matthews in First a Girl, Gracie Fields, George Formby
From left, clockwise, Jessie Matthews in First a Girl, Gracie Fields, George Formby

Jessie Matthews. One of the greatest pre-war stars, she moved effortlessly from the stage to screen in a run of ingenue roles. Later she appeared on American screens as the mother of tom thumb, but catch her at her peak in First a Girl, showing at the BFI Southbank on 12 December.

Gracie Fields. Our Gracie was one of the biggest earners of the 1930s and a huge worldwide success. Usually portraying working-class women with hearts of gold, she was far from glamorous but remained the “poor girl made good”. You can see her gift for comedy and sense her appeal in Sally in Our Alley. You can also see Queen of Hearts on 9 Nov at the BFI Southbank.

George Formby. With his ukulele, toothy grin, and “little stick of Blackpool rock”, he entertained pre-war and wartime audiences with a solid run of musical comedies. Always the same character, with slightly bawdy songs, he proved a brilliant entertainer at the time when the nation needed a laugh. Try Keep Your Seats, Please.

Dancers and ice-skaters

Sonja Henie. From the Olympics to the silver screen, impish Henje shone in a series of ice ballets. Try her first one, One in a Million.

Joan Crawford. Before her emotional dramas and horror flicks, she’d been a talented flapper and chorus girl. Have a look at this aspect of her work in Dancing Lady where she is partnered by none other than Fred Astaire.

Vera Hruba Ralston. Republic’s skater queen, who endured a lot of jibes because she was married to the boss of the studio, Herbert Yates. A vivacious and talented figure skater, she was the big earner for the biggest name on Poverty Row. Take a look at Lake Placid Serenade.

Ann Miller. Hitting the screen at just thirteen years old, she was the definition of a trouper, all teeth and legs and a dazzling presence on the dance floor. Catch her in Kiss Me Kate (almost literally, if you are watching in 3D, as you can at the BFI on 9 December).

Cyd Charisse. Astaire called her “beautiful dynamite” and I can only agree. At her best in a primarily dance role, she is unforgettable in Singin’ in the Rain and does well in Garbo’s old role in Silk Stockings.

Marge and Gower Champion. Marge has just celebrated her centenary, and she made a winning pair with her then husband during the 1950s, even reaching above the title status on a couple of titles. Their best work for me, though, was in supporting roles in Show Boat.


Rex Harrison. Known for his patter-singing, has to be on the list for his starring role as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, a role he created on the stage. You can see this film at BFI Imax on 11 November. He was also seen in the leading role in Doctor Dolittle.

Anthony Newley. A talented composer, performer and actor, he was even a formative influence on the young David Bowie. Also featured in Doctor Dolittle, he is showcased particularly well in Idol on Parade, and was fun in a Dickens musical on the screen, Mr Quilp.


Top, Annette and Frankie, bottom left Sandra Dee, bottom right, Connie Francis
Top, Annette and Frankie, bottom left Sandra Dee, bottom right, Connie Francis

Sandra Dee. Perhaps remembered now for the 50s prototype made fun of in Grease, she was a teen sensation as Tammy and Gidget, but her career declined in the 60s. I recommend I’d Rather Be Rich.

Connie Francis. Pop star of the 50s with a golden voice, she first made films as a vocal dubber for the likes of Tuesday Weld, but appeared on screen herself in a handful of films starting with Follow The Boys.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. This pair livened up a run of “beach movies” of variable quality during the 1950s. Always firmly tongue in cheek, and always fun, they can be enjoyed in any of their collaborations, although I quite like Beach Blanket Bingo.


From top left, clockwise, Carmen Miranda, Marika Rokk, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Carlos Gardel
From top left, clockwise, Carmen Miranda, Marika Rokk, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Carlos Gardel

Carmen Miranda. The sparkling “lady with the tutti-frutti” hat could hardly be contained on the screen, with a sunny and snappy personality. I enjoy watching her in The Gang’s All Here.

Carlos Gardel. The hero of the tango and a legend in Argentina, a singer of sentimental songs. A run of early talkies came to an end with his death in 1935, but the films are very entertaining and his voice is easy and charming. You might take a look at The Lights of Buenos Aires.

Marika Rokk. A Hungarian singer who gained huge prominence in Nazi Germany (and was likely to be a secret spy for the KGB), but continued to work in films into the early 1960s. A pretty and alluring coquette, she can be seen at her best in Hello, Janine!

Marlene Dietrich. A German in Hollywood, she came to fame in the iconic The Blue Angel then lit up many dramatic 1930s films with her exotic allure and deep-voiced vocals. My favourite remains Morocco.

Maurice Chevalier. Quite different to the traditional American musical leads, he brought Gallic charm and a cheeky wink to a range of early talkies, returning to US screens again in later life in Gigi. Catch him in style in The Merry Widow.


From left, clockwise, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Esther Wiliams, Al Jolson
From left, clockwise, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Esther Wiliams, Al Jolson

Sophie Tucker. The last “Red Hot Mama” worked steadily for years on stage but made rare screen appearances. This powerful singer’s early work is lost but she is in Broadway Melody of 1938, and with a new film just released about her, attention may start to be paid to her again.

Fanny Brice. You may know here from Barbra Streisand’s portrayal in Funny Girl, but the real Brice was a true vaudevillian, starting in the Ziegfeld Follies. To see her at her best on screen is difficult, but I like her work in Be Yourself.

Al Jolson. Forever immortalised for being the first performer to sing in a feature film, “Jolie”s style is almost too big to be contained on screen but he is undoubtedly up there with the greats. You have to start with The Jazz Singer.

Esther Williams. Hollywood’s “Princess Mermaid”. In a series of high-budget MGM pictures, Williams swam in proposterous water ballets which have to be seen to be believed. Her personality was sunny and her films were a perfect form of post-war escapism. Perhaps at her best in Bathing Beauty.

Confident women

From top left, clockwise, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie van Doren
From top left, clockwise, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Mamie van Doren, Jayne Mansfield

Mae West. Renowed for her quips, sexual confidence, and earthy writing, West is best appreciated in the pre-Code era before her wings were clipped and her films made more palatable to family audiences. Check her out in I’m No Angel.

Marilyn Monroe. A breathy blonde who needs little introduction, she starred in a range of films where she often sneaked in a song, as well as more traditional musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Jayne Mansfield. Often derided for her large bosoms and cartoon personality, Mansfield was in fact a clever manipulator of her short-lived fame. She is well known for some films around the birth of the rock ‘n roll era, but you can also catch her comic charm in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.

Mamie van Doren. Often found in college and teen exploitation films, van Doren was a straight-talking sexpot who livens up even the most low-budget material. She is the last surviving blonde bombshell from the 1950s. Try Untamed Youth.

Soho Cinders (Charing Cross Theatre)

There have been many interpretations of the fairy tale of Cinderella: from Disney animation to dramatic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, from panto to porn. It is a rags to riches tale which retains a certain timelessness.

Soho Cinders, by Anthony Stiles and George Drewe, boasts a remarkable score which has sharply observed comedy and moments of extreme pathos in this edgy Cinderella of politics, money, the press and the requisite musical happy ending.

Luke Bayer and Millie O'Connell in Soho Cinders
Luke Bayer and Millie O’Connell in Soho Cinders

Robbie (Luke Bayer) has lost his mother and is thrown unceremoniously into the street by his dreadful stepsisters (Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman), who claim ownership of both his flat and business – a launderette he runs with best friend and “Soho hag”, Velcro (Millie O’Connell). We’re in Old Compton Street, where there’s still a strip club, but places “that used to be no-go are now mixed”.

Needing both money and affection he responds to attention from a wealthy businessman (Chris Coleman) and a conflicted Mayoral candidate (Lewis Asquith), playing the former for company and falling in love with the latter. By the end of act one, when plotlines have led him, in a Prada suit, to a society function, Robbie is about to blow everyone’s world apart.

The Charing Cross traverse stage now seems to be a permanent feature, and works well for the big ensemble numbers and even quiet solo pieces. The balcony is used sparingly, and aside from a couple of questionable blocking decisions which affect sightlines, the stage is well utilised throughout with a simple but functional set by Justin Williams.

Luke Bayer and Lewis Asquith in Soho Cinders
Luke Bayer and Lewis Asquith in Soho Cinders

I have a reservation or two around the depiction of bisexuality, which seems rather simplistic, but the transposition of traditional Cinderella characters and tropes is cleverly subverted, with the closeted Lord something of a twisted Fairy Godmother, the ugly sisters wanting their “fifteen minutes of fame … like Gemma Collins”, and the politician standing for the Prince (right down to his name).

Bayer proves a superb Cinders, balancing an “out” cockyness with tender vulnerability, and his solo number “They Don’t Make Glass Slippers” was one of the vocal and emotional highlights of the piece. His easy chemistry with Asquith makes their hidden romance as “intimate strangers” believable, and he’s fun in scenes with O’Connell.

As the spurned fiancee of Prince, Tori Hargreaves constantly impresses, and her duet with O’Connell, “Let Him Go”, gives both characters a solid background and purpose. Hargreaves proves to be the good fairy who brings a sprinkle of happiness to all around her in true storytime style.

The press and the ugly stepsisters in Soho Cinders
The press and the ugly stepsisters in Soho Cinders

The narration, which sets up and describes each scene, works both for and against Soho Cinders: for when it supports the fairy tale conventions of “once upon a time”, but against when it either slows the action with interruptions or feels like a conceit for a work in progress. Ultimately I found it a distraction.

Soho Cinders is a satiric swipe at media speak, the fickleness of fame, and the truth of romance: songs like “It’s Hard To Tell” feel well-observed in this age of gender queerness, and “Spin” gives an insight into carefully-crafted media deception. However, it is the songs which slot into traditional musical style which get the audience humming along. “Who’s That Boy” and “You Shall Go To The Ball” are especially effective.

The musical may hsve tired slightly from its quick debut in 2011, but it is well-performed and directed (by Will Keith). The lighting by Jack Weir, with blue and pink walls of colour, is both pretty and clever, and adds to the vibrancy of its Soho setting.

Soho Cinders is a welcome addition to the London theatre scene and continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 21 December 2019. Book at https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/soho-cinders.

Photo credits Pamela Raith.

Big the Musical (Dominion Theatre)

Big was one of the success stories in 80s cinema, making a huge star of Tom Hanks and his little boy becomes a man story.

Now the film becomes a musical, and is currently in residence at the huge Dominion Theatre. Not being officially invited to review this, and baulking somewhat at the higher priced tickets (where you can what’s going on), I booked myself on the very back row.

This was my view, which wasn’t bad, but if I didn’t know who was on stage, I’d be none the wiser. As I said, the Dominion is huge.

On to the show. It has fairly big name stars, with Jay McGuiness, Kimberley Walsh, Wendi Peters and Matthew Kelly in the cast. They are all very good indeed, with McGuiness and Kelly striving to catch the fun in the piece, and Peters providing a touching moment on her absent son’s birthday.

Jay McGuiness and Marthew Kelly in Big - the Musical
Jay McGuiness and Marthew Kelly in Big – the Musical

What it doesn’t have, really, are memorable songs, or any sense of pacing. The much-lauded piano sequence raises a smile but it comes in too early and lacks that showstopping factor, and sadly the first half comes almost to a stop despite everyone’s best efforts.

The second half becomes problematic when Josh (still a 13 year old boy, in a man’s body) takes up with Susan (Walsh) and becomes sexually involved. This feels unsettling in a family musical which sells toys in the shop and has a wishing machine of its own.

Ensemble of Big - the Musical
Ensemble of Big – the Musical

The good points are few and far between: McGuiness finding with horror he now has body hair and a post-pubersent body is exactly how a teen might react; the carnival game’s genie is animated well and is fairly horrific; the dance at the Christmas party has a touch of energy; and Josh’s final transition scene leaves a lump in the throat, as he leaves Susan in the rain to run back to his home, bed, Mom and life.

Big – the Musical just doesn’t have the wow factor, and at times is plain boring. It could easily lose an hour off a bloated running time and needs to be less confused about its audience. It also needs to utilise its child performers more – Jamie O’Connor as young Josh at the matinee I saw, and especially Jobe Hart as Billy.

Joby Hart and Jay McGuiness in Big - the Musical
Joby Hart and Jay McGuiness in Big – the Musical

Ultimately I wished for more oomph and pizazz, The wishing sequence and the auditorium flooded with stars promised it, but otherwise all was lost. Even the revolving stage started to disappoint – the toy shop worker dance, for example, could have used it better, and in one scene, cast members were seen wandering to the back of the revolve for the next scene set-up!

David Shire and Richard Maltby wrote music and lyrics for Big – the Musical, which continues at the Dominion until 2 November 2019. Shop around for some very good discounts.

Photo credits: Alastair Muir

Amelie (The Hexagon, Reading)

Prior to a run at The Other Palace, Amelie has been on a UK tour and this week stopped off in Reading.

Based on the popular French film and directed by Michael Fentiman, this musical teams Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in the roles of Amelie and Nino, with a company of actor-musicians.

Audrey Brisson as Amelie.
Audrey Brisson as Amelie.

The show has a sense of the absurd, with puppets (child Amelie, a fish), a garden gnome, three giant figs, and a bizarre dream sequence which brings Elton John out of reports of the Princess of Wales’s funeral into a celebration of Amelie herself.

The score by Daniel Messe, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen, is richly constructed, the playing of the lead role delightful. A clever set (by Madeleine Girling) utilises the pivotal photo booth where Nino collects offcuts from customer’s lives, making it the main entrance and exit plus the route up to Amelie’s circulat haven.

Audrey Brisson as Amelie.
Audrey Brisson as Amelie.

We first encounter Amelie as a child, shielded from social intercourse by her mother and utilised by her doctor father ,(Jez Unwin) as a patient of curiosity. Slowly she retreats into a dreamworld where real life is kept at arm’s length, even when she leaves home and takes up a job as a waitress.

Like Jane Austen’s Emma, Amelie is about a girl who makes a difference to people’s lives: the owner of a box of marbles, a lonely widow, a grocer’s assistant, her father, and ultimately, herself.

Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in Amelie.
Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in Amelie.

Amelie has vibrant colours, Parisian streets, shops and stalls, and even electronically projected words. It is endlessly inventive and the company of sixteen gels well together – as well as Brisson, Mac and Unwin, I’d like to single out Sophie Crawford (Gina, the widow), Johnson Willis (the priest and grocer), and Faoileann Cunningham (big-hearted Suzanne).

Amelie may make you laugh, smile or bewilder you, but you’ll fall in love with the young gamine who has more of a hint of Leslie Caron, and you will never be bored.

Photo credits: Pamela Raith.

Tokyo Rose (New Diorama)

Three ladies stand, frozen, with microphones poised on a raised bit of stage as the audience takes their seats in the auditorium of the New Diorama. Two others sit, one each side of the stage area, still and quiet.

It’s 1949, and Iva Toguri (Maya Britto) is on trial for treason, but is that her crime or is her birth country the USA looking for someone to blame “who looks Japanese” after a bruising and demoralising war?

Yuki Sutton, Maya Britto, Hannah Benson in Tokyo Rose
Yuki Sutton, Maya Britto, Hannah Benson in Tokyo Rose

Based on a true story, Tokyo Rose is a brave and powerful new musical from Burnt Lemon Theatre written by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, and directed by Hannah Benson. It is female-led and fuses rap with more traditional solos, duets, trios and ensemble songs (composed by William Patrick Harrison).

Iva Toguri finds herself an enemy alien in Japan when she is stranded looking after her aunt just as Pearl Harbor is bombed. Her choices: give up her US citizenship, which she cannot do, and broadcast on a propaganda network, which she does, lead to exploitation first by a British major loyal to the allies (Cara Baldwin, also playing the prosecutor) and then by an unscrupulous American journalist (Benson, also playing the judge) sniffing out a scoop whether true or not.

Cast of Tokyo Rose
Cast of Tokyo Rose

A huge hit at this year’s Edinburgh fringe, this show boasts impressive vocals and harmonies from its cast of five, and a plot which gives Iva and those around her (mother – Yuki Sutton, aunt – Lucy Park) real heart. By the courtroom scenes we are firmly on her side seeing an injustice done: her only crime her naive belief in patrotism.

Tokyo Rose does not shy away from the impact of war on anyone involved – the native Japanese, the American citizens with Jaoanese heritage, the American military, the displaced Americans in Japan. Any thought of victory is a hollow one when families die in camps or are vaporized by an atomic bomb.

Iva becomes “little orphan Ann” but her broadcasts are pitched as satire, not sedition: her words aimed against the country in which she is alien, not against the flag.

I found Tokyo Rose a vibrant piece of theatre which takes a little-known piece of history and gives a voice to its protagonist. In real-life, Toguri (as we are told in an ending round-up) was eventually cleared of her alleged crime, the Rose having been an allied invention appropriated by an opportunist hack and fuelled by xenophobia. She remained a loyal American and died in 2006 at the age of 90.

Tokyo Rose runs at the New Diorama until 12 October. It’s practically sold out, but you could try the returns queue. Production photo credit – The Other Richard.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Ambassadors Theatre)

Set for The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Sue Townsend’s series of books about spotty teenage intellectual Adrian Mole were hugely successful in the 1980s, as were the two TV adaptations starring Gian Samarco as the eponymous hero.

Now, the musical version has been enjoying a West End residency, following a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2017. It utilises a small cast: four children who appear on rotation, and six adults.

Michael Hawkins and Cuba Kamanu in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
Michael Hawkins and Cuba Kamanu in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Using a set by Tom Rogers of sliding walls, hidden cupboards, and doors, plus a wash of lighting tricks by Howard Hudson that evoke the shapes and colours of 1980s confectionery, this show pulls us right back into young Adrian’s formative decade. It’s a feeling underlined by the cheesy mixtape played as the audience are taking their seats.

Adrian is the only child of slovenly parents George and Pauline, and they live in Leicester. He drinks, she drudges, and their son writes poetry and obsessively worries over the size of his “thing”: around the stage prosenium are rulers spelling out that fact in glorious centimetres.

Company of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
Company of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

While Adrian’s heart starts to flutter at the sight of posh new pupil Pandora (“daddy is an accountant, and a socialist, who sent me to comprehensive hell”), his home life breaks apart as mum Pauline is seduced by sleazy neighbour Mr Lucas.

The songs, by personal and professional partners Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, not only capture the time in which the show is set, but also the feeling of navigating confusing feelings as a growing child.

Through seventeen songs, a year progresses and everyone has a chance to join in – Mum Dad, Mr Lucas, Grandma, Bert, Nigel, Barry, dirty Doreen (who isn’t a million miles removed from Nigel Slater’s stepmum in Toast), and even despicable schoolmaster Mr Scruton and scatty Miss Elf.

Andrew Langtree and Aaron Gelkoff in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
Andrew Langtree and Aaron Gelkoff in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

I enjoyed Michael Hawkins as Adrian, a mass of confusion mixed with fake bravado whether sending a poem off to the BBC, standing up to bullies, or watching with bewilderment as his mum and dad behave badly without him.

Matilda Hopkins (Pandora), Cuba Kamanu (Nigel) and Charlie Stripp (little bruiser Barry), also excelled and were ably supported by the adults – Amy Ellen Richardson (Pauline), Andrew Langtree (George), John Hopkins (Lucas/Scruton), Rosemary Ashe (Grandma), Lara Denning (Miss Elf/Doreen, displaying a fun range), and Ian Talbot (Bert). All six adults also portray school pupils where required.

The small band, hidden above the action most of the time, are led by MD Mark Collins with the songs (perky but unmemorable) accompanied with a spark and a flourish. It was fun to see them revealed during one section, and they are certainly a hard-working group. Director Luke Sheppard proves that working with children and animals – albeit a puppet dog – can sometimes be a success.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole hits the spot for both 80s nostalgics (who may cringe at shell-suits and deely boppers) and those new to Sue Townsend’s amusing books. I enjoyed its spirit and its sense of fun; it’s no classic, but two and a half hours flew by and – one little technical mishap aside – everything flows quickly while still retaining time for chsracter development.

Production photos by Pamela Raith.

Preludes (Southwark Playhouse)

This is a musical, but not one you might expect. Taking place in the disturbed mind of Sergei Rachmaninov during a period of writer’s block, it take the form of a series of brief encounters: appropriate when you consider the use of his No. 2 concerto in the classic 1940s film of that name.

Preludes harks back to the piano piece which made the composer’s name when he was just nineteen; when the whole world seemed open to him. But fame does not bring deity or immortality, as we will see as we follow the plot of this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frustrating, show.

Poster image for Preludes
Poster image for Preludes

The music, which uses original pieces by Dave Malloy alongside, and meshed with, the works of the great Russian composer, is largely electronic and sometimes a chore to experience. The set (designed by Rebecca Brower) resembles a raised stage, but some of the gleaming black floor tiles have been ripped or clawed up, adding to the sense of unease.

The lighting (by Christopher Nairne) only really comes into its own during act two, when Rachmaninov crouches at the base of the stairs in the audience as his opera star dons biker leathers and a blood-red cloak to evoke a heavy metal influenced devil, accompanied by flashes, strobes and washes of red light. Another striking piece of lighting comes later when a drunken conductor reduces a sublime symphony to ridicule.

The set for Preludes
The set for Preludes

Georgia Louise, Rebecca Caine, Tom Noyes, Steven Serlin, Norton James and Keith Ramsay display beautiful singing voices and harmonies when the electronics are stripped back and moments of lucidity take place: at a marriage, during a period of hypnosis. I longed for more of this.

With the topic of mental health in the arts remaining a very current concern, the time is certainly right for Preludes to take to the UK stage, and it is a brave and non-confirming production; however I found the staring and physical ticks of Ramsay’s Rachmaninov did not always convince, nor the use of modern references and turns of phrase. The use of a pianist ‘double’ for the composer’s troubled psyche was effective, and sometimes moving.

Keith Ramsay and Rebecca Caine in rehearsal.
Keith Ramsay and Rebecca Caine in rehearsal.

Malloy and director Alex Sutton bring quick sketches of the characters of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Tsar Nicholas to the piece, as these “great men” interact with the fractured mind of a composer who enumerates each hour he is awake and refrains from the act of creating his next work.

Preludes is certainly not for everyone, but with on-stage sound technicians, a dreamlike state, and more than a sprinkle of chutzpah, it has moments of true emotional power, and does its best to subvert an audience’s expectation of what musical theatre could and should be.

I viewed a preview performance of Preludes, which continues at the Southwark Playhouse. Rehearsal photo by Scott Rylander.

Falsettos (The Other Palace)

Marvin wants it all. Trina is breaking down. Whizzer is playing games, literally and emotionally. Mendel is having a professional crisis. And Jason is growing up quickly in a home which has fallen apart. We are in New York, in 1978.

These are the “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” we meet at the top of Falsettos, with a quick rush through when Marvin married Trina, Jason was born, and when Marvin left with his young and horny “friend” Whizzer to fracture his family home.

Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos
Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos

Mendel’s the psychiatrist who is counselling Marvin, then Trina, then Jason, who is super-smart and very perceptive (“My father says that love is the most wonderful thing in the world / I think chess is the most wonderful thing / Not love”).

In a set full of frames, some of which change time and place, some of which put the characters in little boxes (“wife and child”, “lover”), we start to get to know our characters. Marvin, an older man, is drawn to the selfish, fit and promiscuous Whizzer, the “pretty boy” who is a match physically, but not emotionally (“The Games I Play”).

Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos
Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos

Trina, struggling to raise a boy who is kicking against puberty and moving from browsing toy shops to thinking about girls, is struggling, and in her big act one number (“Breaking Down”), Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the roof and receives the first prolonged piece of applause. By act two, she’s mellowed, playing house with Mendel, tolerating Marvin’s transgressions (“I don’t like Whizzer / but Marvin sure does”).

Originally written as two shows, Falsettos feels like two complementary halves rather than a linear narrative. Every performer in act one’s March of the Falsettos is superb: Pitt-Pulford, Daniel Boys and his middle-aged Marvin, Oliver Savile’s fun-loving Whizzer, Joel Montague’s sensible Mendel (once he’s moved on from wondering whether Trina “sleeps in the nude”), and on the night I was invited to view the show, George Kennedy in his stage debut as the precocious Jason.

Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina in Falsettos
Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina in Falsettos

There’s a dream sequence where Trina constructs her new family circle: by act two’s Falsettoland, and Jason’s bar mitzvah, he’s described as “son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel”, as the fun of the cooking attempts of the additional “lesbians next door” becomes the close, loving and forgiving space of an anonymous hospital room of 1981.

I found the score by William Finn and book by James Lapine sometimes very reminiscent of Sondheim in its melodies and complex lyrics, but beautifully performed throughout with memorable songs – I had only heard some of the music at the recent press launch but have been humming snatches since I saw the show on Friday.

Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos
Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos

As a performing unit, the tight-knit adult cast of six, plus four rotating Jasons, are easy and warm together in this piece which is ultimately about friends, family and all forms of love. This is the strength of Falsettos, a place where a boy moves through the rite of passage to a man, even if he will always fail at baseball.

The title of Falsettos, said my companion at the show, may refer to “false love”, or, as I prefer to think of it, a love that takes time to settle into a form where everyone loves each other in a way which is right for them.

By the end scenes, we haven’t doubted the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer for a moment, and we see Trina’s happiness shining through with Mendel: in turn, he teases Jason’s reticence out with that song about hating your parents (“God understands / because he / hated his”).

Joel Montague as Mendel in Falsettos
Joel Montague as Mendel in Falsettos

From its genesis in 1978 through to the previous UK performance of March of the Falsettos, this musical has been culturally relevant to an era of homophobia, intolerance and fear. Ultimately, as the tagline goes, “love can tell a million stories”, and that is what matters.

Falsettos is directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, designed by PJ McEvoy, and Richard John is the musical director. I feel it is an important revival with an emotional punch to the gut by the end. Welcome to Falsettoland.

Falsettos continues at The Other Palace until 23 November 2019. Photo credits The Standout Company.

The Feeling (The Other Palace Studio)

I was invited to review the debut show by Kyra Jessica Willis, The Feeling, which promised to be a bold, modern, dark comedy musical.

The songs take the form of recognisable pop hits from the likes of REM, Roxette, Demi Lovato, Radiohead, Savage Garden, Counting Crows, Avril Lavigne, Chris Isaak and Fun. They generally work well in the fabric of the show, which provides a look at a group of friends sharing their highs, lows, dreams, hopes, and paranoia.

Poster image for The Feeling
Poster image for The Feeling

Willis herself plays Jessie, first seeming to be just a bitchy woman who plays with people, but developing into someone who needs hugs and happiness. Her close friend (and possibly former lover) is coffee-shop owner and peacemaker Mel, played with a touch of wisdom by Halie Darling, and she is in turn taking shaky steps into romance with geeky Jamie (a sweet George C Francis, who also directs the show).

Jessie and Edie (Chloe Hazel, psychologically shaky and with a heart of stone) have an odd relationship which seems to have more to it than their shared ex-partner, Kasey (PJ Tomlinson). Constantly needling each other and seeking attention, their animosity feels very immature and disturbing.

Cast shots from The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry
Cast shots from The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry

Then there’s Lexie (a delicate Pippa Lea, whose fractured vocals give realism to her situation), who falls for nice guy Archie (Sean Erwood, only in his teens but providing a strong and sensible glue within the group): he’s faced and got through a crisis which may come back to haunt him.

Finally, there’s Holt (Chris Barton), in love with Jessie and on the periphery of the group. This set of people navigating the perils of growing up meet each day in the coffee bar, talking about the small things in life, and sometimes the big things too.

The cast of The Feeling, via Monsteers Artistry
The cast of The Feeling (minus Chloe Hazel), via Monsteers Artistry

A change in lighting for most of the songs put me in mind of Rob Marshall’s film of Chicago, where the musical interludes provide hidden thoughts which remain unspoken. Here, too, we get duets between Jessie/Edie, Jessie/Lexie and solos for Lexie, Edie, Jamie, Jessie which gives us that insight that isn’t in Willis’s dialogue.

The Feeling starts with a film projection of some of the backstory while Kasey sings the opening song, “Mr Jones”. After that we’re straight into what seems to be Friends territory but with extra tension, which escalates with Jessie and Edie’s refusal to speak and Lexie mourning her recent break-up.

As a play, I found some of the dialogue needed to be helped along by the songs, and some aspects came from nowhere (why are Lexie and Hoot siblings when they have no interaction). In the main, though, there is enough here to make you care and the use of “We Are Home” as the final song was particularly effective.

Detail from promotional image for The Feeling
Detail from promotional image for The Feeling

The characters have definitite potential and I felt the warm friendship between Jessie and Mel, the caring core of a Kasey who knew he’d made mistakes, the nervous anxiety of Jamie who doesn’t know how to behave around women, and the quiet desperation of a lonely Lexie.

The songs are well-chosen and beautifully accompanied by MD Connagh Tonkinson, who strips them back to their strong lyrical core. They are generally sung with a sense of realism and emotion, which I enjoyed, even if a handful of the choices have a personal resonance to me that briefly jolted me away from the drama.

Ultimately, The Feeling is an accomplished show from a young company which has a lot of potential: it isn’t perfect, but it shows a lot of heart and a willingness to engage with difficult and complex subjects without resorting to hysterics.

The Feeling has two more performances on 7 September, at 3pm and 8pm. It runs at around 2 hr 20 minutes including an interval.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (London Palladium)

A new production of the fifty-year old musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has been running through the summer at the Palladium – starring recent graduate Jac Yarrow i the lead role, with Sheridan Smith and Jason Donovan the star names to pull in the punters.

The company of Joseph
The company of Joseph

This week Smith is ill with laryngitis, and Vanessa Fisher appears as the Narrator instead. The role has been substantially expanded to include Jacob, Potiphar’s wife, and more: for me, Fisher’s sunny personality and aptitude for clowning made this palatable.

The score remains hummable and pleasant, with the occasional (but familiar) clunky rhyme. With songs which act as parodies of genres such as country, the boulevard, calypso and Elvis, the simple Bible story moves along quickly. Audiences have little chance to be bored at a 100 minute show, although I still find the closing Megamix unneccessary and a bit dated.

Jac Yarrow as Joseph
Jac Yarrow as Joseph

Yarrow is quite a find. Josephs in the past (including Gary Bond, Darren Day, Jason Donovan, Stephen Gately, Philip Schofield, Donny Osmond and Lee Mead) have strived to make the part their own, and any new Joseph donning the coloured coat has large shoes to fill. Yarrow not only has the voice but also the personality to win us over. I predict a long and successful future for him.

I watched the show from a restricted view seat in the Royal Box, so the set design couldn’t be fully appreciated; however, there are no rising platforms out into the audience and no expanding train for Joseph’s coat. The backdrops are fairly simple and the action is largely centre stage.

My restricted seat view from Box B
My restricted seat view from Box B

As Joseph began as a show for children, it is only right that a young cast play a large part in the musical. Here, it isn’t just backup on Joseph’s two big solo numbers, but also we have children playing Potiphar, Benjamin, the Butler and Baker, the goat, and other parts, which works well.

Jason Donovan’s casting has an air of the stunt about it, but the Pharoah is equivalent to Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar, a showy bit of fun with a bit of Vegas glamour. So Donovan curls his lip, wiggles his hips, and wears a cape embroided with “The King”. I’ve seen better Pharoahs who caught the Elvis vibe, but the lady who shouted out “I love you, Jason” clearly disagreed!

Jason Donovan and company of Joseph
Jason Donovan and company of Joseph

With strong direction from Laurence Connor, excellent choreography by Joann M Hunter, and some good supporting bits (brother Simeon, played by Michael Pickering, sings well in Those Canaan Days), this is a definite hit revival – and I can’t forget John Rigby and his orchestra, who are fabulous.

Joseph continues at the London Palladium. I wouldn’t recommend my seat as the restriction is frustrating, but there are a few pricing options out there for the remainder of the run, and there are whispers of a 2020 return.

Production photo credits Tristram Kenton.

Closer to Heaven (Above the Stag)

As part of the retrospective of Jonathan Harvey’s work at Above the Stag, we have this fine revival of the musical he wrote with “Britain’s most successful musical duo”, The Pet Shop Boys. It’s directed by Steven Dexter and choreographed by Ashley Luke Lloyd.

Adele Anderson as Billie Trix
Adele Anderson as Billie Trix

Closer to Heaven is set in the dark and drug-filled spaces of gay clubland, where scantily clad dancers strut their stuff around self-proclaimed momma, the ageing pop art icon Billie Trix (scene-stealing Adele Anderson).

Into this world comes Straight Dave (Blake Patrick Anderson), first as a barman, then on the dance floor. When that isn’t enough he moves from one predator to another, from alcoholic club manager (Christopher Howell) to red-eyed horny record promoter (Ian Hallard).

Ian Hallard as Bob Saunders with Billie Hardy and Rhys Harding

The set (beautifully designed by David Shields and lit by Jack Weir) is all dancing coloured lights, mirrors and projections to set the scene: apart from one brief moment, it is always inside, in the depths of night, where lines of coke are snorted, floor shows are rehearsed, sexual favours traded, or confidences shared.

Straight Dave’s life is complicated when love shows up in the forms of a girl (Shell, streetwise daughter of her gay dad, played by a feisty Maddy Banks) and a boy (drug dealer Mile End Lee, doing his best to keep sex as a transaction for money, played with sensitivity and street-cred by Mikulas Urbank).

In the cacophony of clubland and the plastic of manufactured pop, there is a tender love story, albeit one tinged with tragedy. This is the world of the young and beautiful, chasing their dreams in hotpants and illuminated halos.

Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave, Maddy Banks as Shell Christian
Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave, Maddy Banks as Shell Christian

Billie Trix, Bob Saunders and Vic Christian, as the older characters in the seedy space The Pet Shop Boys clearly know so well, have their own crosses to bear, and their own routes to survival.

Surrounding herself with images of her youth, Billie recalls “loving many genders” in a Dietrich accent; Saunders paws at young boys with an eager fist full of money and nothing behind his dead eyed bravado; Christian sucks the lifeblood from his own addiction (Vampires).

Adele Anderson as Billie Trix, Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave
Adele Anderson as Billie Trix, Blake Patrick Anderson as Straight Dave

The songs are a mix of club anthems, ballads, and in one section, a mini-musical about the mad emperor Caligula. Although you hear hints of PSB hits like Rent here and there in the opening bars, Closer to Heaven is full of original, catchy tunes and knowing dance routines.

The music and songs lift a plot that is part Cabaret with all its decadence, part Romeo and Juliet (and Romeo), and all the performances are fine, with Anderson particularly outstanding as the ageing diva who reveals herself to be the wise old woman who nurtures everyone around her (Friendly Fire).

Closer to Heaven closes on 31 August 2019. Photos by Gaz at PBG Studios.

Once On This Island (Southwark Playhouse)

I believe this is my first show from the British Theatre Academy, one of a portfolio of five they are presenting in their summer season.

Once On This Island is a musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) and is described on the flyer as “a captivating calypso-flavoured re-telling of The Little Mermaid fairy tale”.

Once On This Island

Directed and choreographed by Lee Proud, this production presents a vibrant young company to tell the story of the peasant orphan Ti Moune and her romance with a rich boy.

The stage of the Southwark Playhouse’s Large space is fully utilised with every inch brought into play with sound, colour, dancing and dynamic storytelling. The floor is decorated with island maps, and there are ribbons, shakers, tyres, boxes and ladders utilised at various points to suggest a change in location.

Chrissie Bhima in Once On This Island

Matthew Chandler founded the British Theatre Academy to provide access to professional training for under-23s of all socioeconomic backgrounds, an ethos which seems echoed by the dedication and professionalism of the performers in this show.

It is hard to single out performers in such a small and tight-knit ensemble, and in fact the company as a whole has received a well-deserved Offies nomination, but Chrissie Bhima shines as Ti Moune, and several ensemble players caught the eye (sadly the programme does not team names with photographs, so I cannot credit them specifically).

Once On This Island

I enjoyed the tricky and layered harmonies, the joyous atmosphere in the performance space, and the cultural richness of myth and legend depicted in Once On This Island, especially the spirit of Carnival in this week of the Notting Hill festivities.

The show continues until 31 August at the Southwark Playhouse.

Queen of the Mist (Charing Cross Theatre)

The story of Anna Edson Taylor and her successful attempt to cross Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 has always fascinated me, so when an opportunity arose to see the musical based on her story I had to see it.

Mrs Taylor (there’s no hint of a husband) is first shown living with her sister, where she lives beyond her means and longs for adventure (and money). Seeing a gap in the market and feeling she has science behind her, she seeks to do what no woman – or man – has done before: to go over the Falls and survive.

Trudi Camilleri in Queen of the Mist

Michael John LaChiusa has created a score which in twenty songs weaves a harmonic narrative which works well in songs such as Anna’s There Is Greatness In Me in act one, or The Green (about the motivation of all public speakers to earn money) in act two.

Trudi Camilleri leads the cast with a set of pipes to rival the great Ethel Merman in a barn-storming turn that dominates proceedings. She convinces both as the selfish and arrogant adventuter, and the sad old woman facing destitution by the close of the show.

Trudi Camilleri and Will Arundel in Queen of the Mist

In a strong first half interesting relationships are explored between Anna and her straightlaced sister Jane (Emily Juler), and Anna and her showboating manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel, with whom Camilleri displays a cordial and warm frisson of friendship which suits both characters).

After the stunt/experiment is concluded, though, I found the second act a little indulgent and uneven, with one scene and number (Million Dollar Momma) adding little to the plot. Knowing that Anna survives removes any sense of tension and even the talk of an eroticised tiger doesn’t quite keep the pace moving, nor the reappearance of President McKinley’s assassin from act one, now a ghost.

Trudi Camilleri and Emna Ralston in Queen of the Mist

The stage is in traverse with audience seating on each side, the sides of the set crammed with shelves of bric-a-brac and everyday detritus, with balconies holding the band (led by Connor Fogel) on one side, and the cast coming together on occasion to harmonise on the other.

Although this configuration can often work well, especially to suggest claustrophobia (such as in the interior of a barrel), the choice by director Dom O’Hanlon to stage songs back and forth between audience sides led to long stretches looking at the back of actors’ heads as they sang, which I found a little frustrating.

The beauty of this production is in the exquisite lighting design of Beth Gupwell, the period costumes of Lemington Ridley, and in the performance of the dynamic Camilleri and some of her supporting cast (Andrew Carter has a rolling bass as deep as the waters; Tom Blackmore – who also acts well as the nervous young soldier – has a fine tenor voice; Emma Ralston is a versatile alto).

Andrew Carter in Queen of the Mist

I would personally trim the second act just a little and concentrate on Mrs Taylor’s great achievement, which remains notable even if money was her main motivator. I found myself craving more of this dynamic woman’s story long after Queen of the Mist ended.

Queen of the Mist continues at the Charing Cross Theatre until 5 October 2019 and tickets can be purchased at https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/queen-of-the-mist. Photo credits by Stephen Russell.

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.

The View UpStairs (Soho Theatre)

The first European production of Max Vernon’s musical comes to Soho, and provides a story of time travel, understanding, companionship, community, hope, and catastrophe against the backdrop of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans (which was also referenced as part of the past of the lead character in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream, which I saw earlier this year).

In the dilapidated ruins of the upstairs bar, left vacant for too long, we see first see Buddy (John Partridge) light up the first of many cigarettes, before launching into song and then into the shadows. Instagram celebrity fashionisto Wes (Tyrone Huntley) arrives with the realtor to sign the deal on the place, but he struggles to see its potential.

John Partridge as Buddy
John Partridge as Buddy

While taking photos for his feed, the rest of the cast hover in the part-darkness, ghostly reflections of a time gone by, and eventually, Wes finds himself catapulted back from 2019 into the age of payphones, bath-houses, bell-bottoms, and gay invisibility.

The power in the play is that each character is given their chance to shine – Buddy, the pianist with a wife and children at home, with his period-perfect glasses and kerchief; Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), the butch with an Afro who rules her domain behind the bar; Willie (Cedric Neal), the “old queen” who once shone at the Ballet Russes because of his legs; Freddy (Garry Lee), the quiet construction worker turned drag queen with a dress made from curtains and a cardboard cock shooting out glitter; Freddy’s mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), whose dreams of coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico did not involve helping her son with his make-up; and Patrick (Andy Mientus), the teenage hustler.

The twin peaks of brotherhood and ostracisation are represented by the placid Jesus-loving Richard (Joseph Prouse) and angry, homeless outcast Dale (Declan Bennett), whose scenes underline the bond between the UpStairs patrons and their knife-edge relationship with others just outside that circle (the telling scene with the cop (Derek Hagen) who is quickly paid off to allow everyone to stay safe and keep their reputations intact is a good example of how the UpStairs Lounge is in its own little bubble, just as Wes is in his online space in 2019).

The company of The View UpStairs
The company of The View UpStairs

Wes’s presence clearly allows Vernon to bring in issues beyond those understood in 1973 – so not just hate crimes, gay-bashing, abuse, but the spectre of AIDS and the victory – of sorts – of becoming more accepted by some sections of society. Wes is a shallow and vain individual defined only by his followers and likes, but he slowly comes to understand the value of friendship and fellowship by interacting with each patron of the club. He also falls in love, perhaps for the first time, with Patrick, leading to some moving scenes between the two young men, reflecting on the differences in courtship and hook-ups across the forty-year time-gap.

The characters are of course, fictional, although the basic facts of the arson attack on the UpStairs are not – there was a man who visited each week, and was closeted, his family only discovering the truth when his body was found fused to that of his boyfriend; there was a house pianist (in fact two, Bud and David, both perished in the fire); there was a mother called Inez; and there was a man who burned to death trapped by the window bars, his body remaining there for a day afterwards, the church reverend who had led the service of hope and belonging earlier that evening.

The View UpStairs has catchy songs, both for ensemble and solo performers, and it has humour as well as political nous and moments that will make you gasp or find yourself in tears. The fire itself is evoked by lighting and movement, then by Patrick filling in the details as the final ghost standing in Wes’s new commercial space, the space which is finally filled with the images time and custom had forgotten for all those years.

Tyrone Huntley as Wes and Andy Mientus as Patrick
Tyrone Huntley as Wes and Andy Mientus as Patrick

This is a remarkable musical, with no mis-steps from any of the cast (Partridge, Neal, Huntley and Lee excel, but everyone is very good), and a fine house band led by musical director Bob Broad. Jonathan O’Boyle directs (and with some audience members on the stage as if they are non-player characters in the space that may be challenging), and Fabian Aloise choreographs a brilliant set of sequences which utilise the chairs, bar and every inch of the compact stage.

The View UpStairs continues at the Soho Theatre until 24 August 2019. I got an early-bird discounted ticket for the second row, but there are good sightlines across the space wherever you choose to sit.

Photo credits Darren Bell.

Merrily We Roll Along (Linbury Studio, LAMDA)

A trip to Barons Court to see a Sondheim musical in LAMDA’s Summer Season was just the ticket this week, although I regret that I missed the chance to see two student productions of Merrily We Roll Along (the Guildhall School presented it at their Silk Street Theatre at the Barbican earlier this month, and it passed me by).

William Robinson, Mercedes Assad, Scarlett Courtney, Olivia Le Anderson, Stuart Thompson and Chloe McClay
William Robinson, Mercedes Assad, Scarlett Courtney, Olivia Le Anderson, Stuart Thompson and Chloe McClay

Still, it is a musical I haven’t seen live at all, so I really looked forward to see what LAMDA’s graduating class had done with it.

Merrily We Roll Along was a failure on its first appearance, a rare misstep for Sondheim and director Hal Prince – over the years, though, many of its songs have had multiple recordings by major artists and regular revivals have made it an affectionately regarded, if minor musical.

Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson, Ryan Burch, Scarlett Courtney and Esme Scarborough
Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson, Ryan Burch, Scarlett Courtney and Esme Scarborough

This “class of 2019” are a talented bunch – in leading roles we have Colm Gleeson (Frank, arrogance personified at the start, idealistic at the end), Sam Stafford (Charlie, sweet in Good Thing Going), Esme Scarborough (Mary, the glue that binds the Old Friends), Scarlett Courtney (Beth, spiky yet fragile in Not a Day Goes By), Chloe McClay (Gussie, the vamp) and Ryan Burch (Joe, whose plot trajectory is in reverse of Frank’s), and they are very good indeed.

Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson and Mercedes Assad
Sam Stafford, Colm Gleeson and Mercedes Assad

On the fringes in smaller parts are Stuart Thompson (who was awarded the Sondheim Society Performer of the Year for 2019), Liam King (fun as Beth’s southern dad), Mercedes Assad (a fiery TV anchor), and Olivia Le Anderson (the unfortunate Meg in the first scene).

Joshua Eldridge-Smith, Michael Kosko, Ell Potter (fun, briefly, as Charlie’s wife Evelyn), Ivan du Pontavice, and William Robinson form the rest of the company, all gifted in voice and movement.

Company of Merrily We Roll Along
Company of Merrily We Roll Along

Based on a 1930s play which used the same reverse chronology, Sondheim’s musical (and George Furth’s book) takes us from 1976 back to 1957, to see how the choices of Franklin Shephard shaped his life and made him the Hollywood success we see at the opening party.

Far more effective than a straightforward rise and fall story, it closes with perhaps the best-known song fron the production, It’s Our Time, which resonates both with the young characters we see here and the actors at the start of their careers.

Directed by Caroline Leslie, designed by Mila Sanders, and accompanied on solo piano and occasional percussion by Joe Beighton – all LAMDA staff members – this is an enjoyable piece which has its final performances today.

I look forward to seeing what this group of performers do in their future engagements.

Bare: a Pop Opera (The Vaults)

To reach The Vaults performance space you venture down the graffiti tunnel at Leake Street, then into one of the arches and through an unsteady route to the bar.

Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera
Poster for Bare: a Pop Opera

Bare: a Pop Opera isn’t on in the theatre, but instead in an extension of the bar space with a long stage in the shape of a T. From my section, the ‘red’ seats (the perks of the press), there isn’t much turning required to see everything, but the cheaper ‘yellow’ section must miss bits or see a lot of backs of heads.

So, settling down on a plastic chair with the rumble of trains passing from Waterloo, the set I see is simple – religious paintings, chairs, a tree. The lights are purple, there are church chants. We’re in a Catholic school with teenagers about to graduate – Peter, Jason, Ivy, Matt, Nadia and others.

Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason
Mark Jardine as Peter, Darragh Cowley as Jason

Over the next two and a half hours we watch them pray, party, fall in love, struggle with their identities, and eventually deal with the catastrophe of a loss they can only just comprehend.

Songs (by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo) and scenes stand out – Nadia, a little large, who wants to be pretty (she is, reminding me of Mama Cass); Peter, trying to confide in his mum over the phone (“his father will die … where was the warning?”); Matt, who loves Ivy, but she looks right through him: Ivy, outwardly confident but “only a girl”; and Jason, our Romeo who wants things “best kept secret”.

Lizzie Emery as Ivy
Lizzie Emery as Ivy

There’s the sister, too (Stacy Francis), appearing in a dream like a Supreme as the Virgin Mary, then reminding Peter that as conflicted and ashamed as he may be for loving another boy, “God don’t make no trash”. The priest is less helpful, preaching doctrine that it is best “not to question”.

This show has had a long genesis – it debuted in 2000 in Los Angeles and eventually evolved into Bare: the Musical in 2012. The original version, which we see here at The Vaults, feels timeless, without the clutter of social media or the opening out of the book.

Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy
Georgie Lovatt as Nadia, Lizzie Emery as Ivy

Bare: a Pop Opera is almost completely sung-through, with more than thirty songs of different types. For me, the second act was stronger with less ensemble numbers (the sound in the venue is a problem with multiple singers), but there are fine performances throughout.

The use of Romeo and Juliet as a framing device, the end-of-term play, gives a chance for the Queen Mab speech to be incorporated, and the suicide by poison, this time for the love of a boy.

Romeo and Juliet sequence
Romeo and Juliet sequence

Parallels with Spring Awakening feel inevitable, but I feel that had a more focused book throughout (although Bare, with its tree and pictures of children who struggled too long with their sexuality and perceptions of others, has the more emotional ending).

Julie Atherton’s direction makes the most of the stage space available – although there is at least one scene change that drags – and in the cast there are several young names to watch: Daniel Mark Shand (Peter), Georgie Lovatt (Nadia), Tom Hier (Matt) especially impressed me, but the whole cast are good.

Bare: a Pop Opera continues at The Vaults until 4 August.

Photo credits – Tom Grace.

The Light in the Piazza (Royal Festival Hall)

A hybrid of opera and musical theatre, The Light in the Piazza is based on an old Hollywood film and sets a complex love story among the ruins and sites of Florence.

The Royal Festival Hall isn’t known for staging musicals, and it is easy to see why – with no flies, wings or ubiquitous revolve, opportunities for set and staging are limited, and the hall is best utilised for classical concerts or semi-staged operas.

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza
Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Here, the set is dominated by a huge plaster statue of a headless naked man’s bottom, and a cut-down snippet of set with a staircase, doors, archway, and a small space which is utilised for anything from a hotel room, art gallery and church to a tourist square, pavement cafe and briefly, Rome.

The cast is headed by opera superstar Renee Fleming as protective mum Margaret – I felt she didn’t quite fit her character early on but her singing was wonderful and as the character softened and we had an insight into her dead marriage back home (telling and brief scenes from Malcolm Sinclair) we warmed to her.

Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming

Dove Cameron plays Clara, mid-twenties and emotionally underdeveloped due to a childhood trauma (it felt for ages that the problem may have been terminal illness, as Margaret’s explanation to the audience comes late). Cameron is best known for her work for Disney, including the Descendants film series. Her high soprano didn’t quite click for me, but she acted well in a difficult role, depicting a girl finding romantic love for the first time.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Rob Houchen, a new name to me, is Fabrizio, the Florentine who falls so head over heels for Clara he sings an impassioned aria about her – in Italian! He has a glorious voice, although in his scenes he is saddled with speaking in broken English.

Alex Jennings plays his father, with better English due to his work with American authorities during the war. He’s an urbane shop owner with a wife (Marie McLaughlin) stereotypical Italian until she breaks the fourth wall in act two to tell us what her family are talking about in scenes which verge on comedy, and older son (Liam Tarne) who neglects his flighty wife (the scene-stealing Celinde Schoenmaker).

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen
Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

The score, by Adam Guettel, is not that memorable, sadly, but is performed well – including solos for Fleming, Cameron, and Houchen, and duets for Fleming/Cameron, Cameron/Houchen and even Fleming/Jennings. The orchestra of Opera North do well, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, even if they over-dominate that vast stage.

View from front stalls.
View from front stalls.

The Light in the Piazza feels swamped in such a large space, even with the top level closed. I was lucky enough to secure my seat for half the price, but could have paid a lot less. Pricing this as a top-flight West End show when it is effectively a semi-staging feels too ambitious, and show would surely have more emotional impact in a more intimate space.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.
Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

From my seat in the front stalls I did feel engaged and involved, but in the back row the experience would be very different. Kudos to director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones for bringing a bit of Italian magic to this cavernous stage, although the ensemble were limited to bits of movement and dancing on that staircase.

Production photo credits Dewynter.