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.

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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.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)

This new Celtic folk musical by Jethro Compton (who also directs) and Darren Clark is currently running in the Southwark Playhouse’s Little, with a cast of five actor-musicians bringing F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to life.

Benjamin Button is born to Roger and Mary in 1919, appearing as a fully-formed seventy year-old man asking his father for a smoke. He is represented by a decrepit puppet with spookily lifelike legs.

The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The cast of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mother can’t cope and finds her end from the cliffs. Father hides his ageing son in the attic, confident he will die soon, but Benjamin gets younger, stronger and sharper by the day.

When an unlocked door gives the sixty year-old Benjamin the “little bit of life” he craves, he’s down the pub for “just beer”, meeting the barmaid, Elowen, who becomes the love of his life.

James Marlowe and company
James Marlowe and company

Weaving the story of “the backwards man” with the folk tradition, and a constant reminder of the days, minutes, seconds that have passed gives the piece heart and humour, and James Marlowe’s performance of a Benjamin who gets more youthful as those around him age – at 40 he is the same age as his wife, at 24 the same age as his son – is believable and touching.

The Cornwall sea is ever-present, with the cliffs, the ships, the walks, a letter in a bottle, a family tragedy, all taking place during Benjamin’s seven decades of life.

James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg
James Marlowe and Philippa Hogg

Space, too, with his assurance that a man will one day walk on the moon. And a white shawl, wore on a wedding day, to nurse children, to die in, to become the blanket for a baby in his last few days.

The small cast – as well as Marlowe, we have Matthew Burne, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg – evoke a variety of situations and characters (including two chains of events that change Benjamin’s life forever). The puppets of old Benjamin, his children, and the child Benjamin do not appear realistic, but nevertheless are full of life.

Joey Hickman
Joey Hickman

The lighting and smoke evoke the Cornish coast, and a broken clock reminds us of the vagaries of time. Stage and lighting design by Schonlatern, costumes by Cecilia Trano, and sound by Michael Woods all add to the effect.

At two and a half hours, this musical is a deeply engrossing, charming and moving piece of whimsical storytelling. A gem which will surely have a further life beyond this short run.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until the 8 June. Photo credits Jethro Compton Productions.

Aspects of Love (Southwark Playhouse)

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s chamber piece is often overlooked alongside big hitters like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Evita, but it does include one of his finest scores, and so it is a pleasure to watch a new adaptation of this complex musical of love, direct from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester.

The majority of the cast have travelled south with this show, with the exception of Madelena Alberto, who joins as Giulietta, and Eleanor Jackson, who fulfils a number of peripheral roles throughout.

Felix Mosse and Kelly Price. Photo by Pamela Raith.
Felix Mosse and Kelly Price. Photo by Pamela Raith.

Alex (Felix Mosse), 17, sends flowers to the older actress Rose (Kelly Price), who is managed by the caring Marcel (Minal Patel). She goes away with Alex to a villa which turns out to be his uncle George’s (Jerome Pradon), who himself has a mistress in Venice (Alberto). George sees Rose in a dress his dead wife once wore and she leaves Alex for him.

She moves in, and Alex returns in a couple of years to find her installed as “Madame” at the villa. They get involved again, and George thinks Alex is best for her; she has other ideas. George goes broke, and Rose proposes. Giulietta is “best man”, and after a lingering kiss, it is implied the three live together in a menage a trois. Rose gives birth to a daughter, Jenny (Eleanor Walsh).

Then in Act Two, we have fast-forwarded a number of years, with Jenny on the brink of womanhood, Rose acting in films and having a lover, Hugo (Jason Kajdi), and George rapidly ageing. When Alex returns he finds himself attracted to Jenny, but Rose is also toying with him, and it can only end in disaster.

Finally, we go full circle to the funeral procession and wake which begins this show, marking the death of George, and Alex and Giulietta go off together, leaving Rose alone and desperate, and Jenny bereft.

Jerome Pradon and Madalena Alberto. Photo by Pamela Raith.
Jerome Pradon and Madalena Alberto. Photo by Pamela Raith.

The story, of course, is preposterous and as an advert for polygamy or polyamory, keeps things firmly in the family. The score is delicious, and beautifully performed, especially by Price, who completely nails the big number for Rose, “Anything But Lonely”, and Alberto, who shows her range in “There is More to Love” and “Hand Me The Wine and The Dice”.

Pradon convinces as the old lothario who parties with his women and then becomes frustrated with his own mortality, and his delivery of George’s big songs, “Other Pleasures” and “The First Man You Remember” (George sees his daughter in that dress and seems to slip into the past) is nicely judged, if a little forceful in places.

As Alex, Mosse acts well both as the petulant child-man and the embarrassed recipient of his young cousin’s affections, but he is the most selfish character on the page; showing no real redemption. It seems clear in his exchange with Guilietta that he will return to claim Jenny and cause more upset in due course. He’s perhaps not unlike his uncle in that, living for today, and damn us all.

Detail from the programme and poster for Aspects of Love

Walsh’s Jenny is a force of nature as a childish teenager, and a confused young woman: a role which is hard to get right. It’s a pity she has one of the worst vocal lines (“I saw what you were doing with your new Italian friend”). I’m not sure whether the line “No one said that Romeo was a monster” has gone, but if it has, I miss it just as much as the original setting for “She’d Be Far Better Off With You”, which has now become a quartet for George, Alex, Rose, and their maid (but retains the great lyric, “You’ve dined with Garbo … translated La Bo/heme”).

The set and staging is cleverly done for a small space, with lighting cues, dancing stage resets, and musical moments to evoke a change of scene and time. “Falling”, in particular, the quartet in which Rose, George, Alex and Jenny lament their emotional states, works well in the simplicity of a couple on each side of the stage, seated at the audience tables.

Those tables, incidentally, may cause problems for those of you in row B looking directly front of the stage, and be aware there are times where your view of the action will be restricted. Perhaps a lesson to be learnt in the future for the venue, although the idea of audience members getting a closer view of the action is to be applauded.

I have so many questions about a show I know so well (having seen several productions over the years):

  1. If George is Alex’s guardian, where has Alex been getting his income from and where has he been living?
  2. Why doesn’t George marry Guilietta?
  3. Why does Rose agree so quickly to go with Alex? The villa?
  4. Does Rose really love George?
  5. Does the telegram from Marcel which shortens Alex and Rose’s fortnight really come from George?
  6. If Alex suspects Rose has gone to George, why is he so surprised to see her as Madame of the house two years later?
  7. Why does George agree to marry Rose if he is broke and she has no money other than from her career?
  8. Why was Rose so quick to sleep with Alex again if she is so happy?
  9. If Rose needs to work to bring in money when does she stop to have a baby?
  10. When Alex visits Rose at the theatre in Act Two he hasn’t seen her for twelve years, but Jenny is thirteen?
  11. If George hasn’t kept track of Alex, how does Alex know about Jenny?
  12. Where has Alex been serving in the Army?
  13. If Alex stays chez George for two years, how come he never meets Guilietta?
  14. If the age of consent is 15 in France, why is everyone so protective about Jenny?
  15. Could Alex be Jenny’s father?
  16. Does George have a sexual obsession with his own daughter?
  17. Why has Rose taken up with Hugo?
  18. Why did Rose never get involved with Marcel?
  19. Why doesn’t Alex just leave if he wants to control his urges?
  20. Why doesn’t George ask him to leave if he is so worried?
  21. Once George has died, why don’t Rose and Guilietta set up home together?
  22. Why is Guilietta’s love life so complicated?
  23. Why does Alex push Rose away at the end of “Anything But Lonely”?
  24. Why does Alex end up with Guilietta?
  25. Will Alex go back for Jenny?

Nothing in the show resolves any of this, but despite the plot holes and clear confusion, this remains an excellent musical which deserves reappraisal. Welcome back, Aspects. Don’t stay away so long again.

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.

 

Cyrano de Bergerac (Southwark Playhouse)

Coming to the end of its run in this charmingly quirky fringe theatre, an all-female version of the classic Edmond Rostand play (adapted by Glyn Maxwell) is not without interest.

What makes it special is the casting of that little powerhouse, Kathryn Hunter, in the title role.  I’ve seen her play Lear before, and Mother Courage, and she never disappoints, her tiny frame bristling with physicality, and her quavering voice pulsating with poetry.  She is worth the entry price alone – although I also enjoyed the quiet bravado of Ellie Kendrick as Christian, and Tamzin Griffin is a swashbuckling Duc de Guiche, while Sabrina Bartlett is sweet as Roxanne.

While some of the fight scenes lacked bite (the hundred men Cyrano dispatches in Act One), the quieter scenes are quite special – that balcony scene, where Cyrano, eyes full of love, feeds Christian lines which speak directly to his cousin, who only sees him as a relation with bravado; the end sequence, where Roxanne clocks that the letter writer was not the pretty boy she has mourned for years.

The scene where Cyrano goads the Duc about finding the words to describe his comically large nose, however, worked better with the Anthony Burgess translation in the 1990 film.  Maxwell’s version lacks that finesse, and, to quote Cyrano himself, panache.