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Tuesday, 19 September 2023

REVIEW: 42nd Street at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

The musical 42nd Street ran for five years at Drury Lane from 1984 and has been regularly revived for regional tours and West End outings ever since, so it is no surprise to find the latest production arriving in Woking on a tour that will last well into 2024 (with a Christmas trip overseas to Toronto) and to find another full house of fans looking for an entertaining feelgood night out. The real delight is that the leading lady Nicole-Lily Baisden, playing Peggy Sawyer, the chorus girl who makes good, is absolutely brilliant in her movement and dance and outshines the bigger names in the cast. Just as the 1984 West End production discovered nineteen-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones, this production may have revealed another huge rising star of musical theatre.

Its Jukebox musical format, using a 1933 film as a base and adding other period songs, is a formulaic and cliched ‘show within a show’ story with a simple plot of a chorus girl who makes good. It succeeds due to an excellent well-drilled Ensemble, sparkling performances from the leads, slick scene transitions and elegant glittering costumes, with an energetic execution throughout and music that sweeps you along in a toe-tapping evening that is simply irresistible. Of course, the really big tap routines live long in the memory and the choreography feels fresh and exciting.

Sunday, 6 August 2023

REVIEW: The Sound of Music at the Chichester Festival Theatre

The 1959 hit musical Sound of Music has one of the best scores ever written with wonderful Richard Rodgers tunes that tug at the heartstrings, delightful moments of gentle humour from Oscar Hammerstein II and an authentic grim context that still resonates today with the daily news of invasions. It would be tough to fail in mounting a revival of this glorious musical but equally difficult to escape the memory of Julie Andrews's performance in the 1965 film. Chichester Festival’s wonderful revival directed by Adam Penford certainly manages to not only do the stage show full justice but also beautifully differentiate itself from the memorable film version and magically make the most of the theatre’s tricky thrust stage.

The design by Robert Jones focuses us on the monastic lifestyle that oppresses Maria's free spirit but also creates a sense of entrapment by the mountains around the Von Trapp home as the Nazi sympathisers and invaders start to circle with the huge grey-streaked cyclorama cliff face and walls framing all the action. The design cleverly and slickly allows more intimate settings to be created in the Abbesses office and grounds of the nunnery and the Von Trapp’s Hall, bedroom and veranda as well as evocatively creating the Salzburg Festival stage with the powerful presence of the occupying forces. It does mean we don’t see the wonderful mountain scenery so memorably showcased in the film for “The Sound of Music” or the final uplifting escape over the mountains to the reprise of “Climb every mountain” and the staging with Maria laying on the floor of a rising trap in the first and climbing through the auditorium for the latter are compromises that don’t quite have the same joyous sense of freedom as in the original.

REVIEW: Rock Follies at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Thames Television was at the height of its creative powers in the late Seventies and early Eighties and under the wonderful Verity Lambert (1935-2007) produced many iconic shows including The naked civil servant (1975), The Sweeney (1975-1978), Minder (1979-1994), Widows (1983-1985), Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-1992) and Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978), all classic TV dramas of the period. In 1976/1977 she produced a 12-episode (2 series) show called Rock Follies which made stars of Charlotte Cornwall, Rula Lenska and Julie Covington and its themes of an independently minded three-girl rock band called the Little Ladies in a world dominated by men was brilliantly executed and acted. The Chichester Theatre adaptation of this Landmark TV series by Chloe Moss for the Minerva after 45 years is brave and bold against the memories of the 3 BAFTA Awarding winning series and a number 1 soundtrack album. The adaption appears to lift the plot from the twelve episodes and stay true to its storyline, but the effect is a very bitty episodic rather long running time as they cram every song and plot point in from their formation, through their relationships, the tours and agents and artists they meet in the pursuit of fame. It does draw out clearly the tensions between the need and desire for fame and fortune and the motivation and intent to change the world with their messages. It is this theme that perhaps resonates the best today, but it is not strong enough to drive the narrative.

The production features before Act 1, a soundtrack from the pop music of the day and during the interval, Blurred Faces play covers of some other tracks from the period. For those of us old enough these instantly recognisable songs remind us of the energy and excitement of the music of that period. 2-4-6-8 Motorway (1977), Boys are back (1976), Children of the Revolution (1972), Blitzkrieg Bop (1976), Ballroom Blitz (1974) and White Riot (1977) were generation defining songs and 50 years on the Performers and the lyrics are still strong memories of the era. Sadly, not a single tune of Howard Schuman and Andy McKay’s songbook live up to these and are forgotten within minutes of hearing them. Indeed, even the Little Ladies defiant protest song Jubilee pales in comparison with the Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK (1976) and God save the Queen (1977) of that period.

Tuesday, 4 July 2023

REVIEW: Crazy For You at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

We can measure the success of a Chichester Festival season by the transfer of shows into the West End and they have a good track record of musical transfers which is now joined by the superb production of the George and Ira Gershwin musical comedy Crazy for You. Based on the music of the 1930s musical Girl Crazy with a new book by Ken Ludwig and first staged in the 1990’s, it is a joyously entertaining romantic comedy in which the fabulous score of delightfully melodic tunes provides a perfect platform for one of the great new young stars of British Musical theatre, Charlie Stemp and the fresh and exciting restaging of the choreography by director and choreographer Susan Stroman. It's simply impossible to not be enthralled and delighted by this combination. 

Stemp is a genuine star performer discovered by Chichester when he played Arthur Kipps in their version of Half a Sixpence and every bit as engaging and charming as a young Tommy Steele. He is surely destined for a career as long as Steele and experience will add that final little touch of cheeky sparkle that Steele has shown within every performance. Stemp plays Bobby Child, the wayward banker who wants to be a theatre star and moves with fluidity and grace, combining tap with balletic leaps and twirls and a knowing grin which engages the audience and cries look at me I can dance! At times it feels like he is improvising the moves in what surely is a well-rehearsed routine. He adds delightful comic timing especially in the disguise as a Bela Zangler including a wonderful recreation of a classic pantomime/musical hall Mirror routine with Tom Edden who plays the real Bela (with a touch of Groucho Marx) in which the audience is held spellbound waiting for the moment when Bela twigs what is going on. His fantasy dance routines with the leggy and lovely Follies Girls in “I Can’t be bothered now “ and “Nice Work if you can get it” are spectacular routines using the whole stage and transporting us back to a golden age of chorus line glamour. 

REVIEW: The RSC's As You Like It at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The Royal Shakespeare Company has a duty to stage the plays of the Bard and bring them to new audiences, over 400 years since the works were written and this desire to attract new audiences and freshen the appeal of well-known titles does encourage Directors to seek new ways of staging the works. The latest production of the 1599 comedy As You Like It at the Stratford upon Avon is a clear demonstration that when you get the right director and a collection of experienced performers who speak with such beautiful clarity, the words delight and can be given a fresh zingy zesty feel. Even the late substitution due to the indisposition of the actor playing Jacques does not dampen the appeal fitting perfectly into the set-up.

The prologue by Michael Bertenshaw (Oliver in the play) explains the clever conceit that we are watching the reunion of the 1978 cast of the play, 45 years on, to restage from memory their version in a rehearsal room without costumes or props. He explains that six of the original actors could not return and their roles would be played by four younger actors ( sometimes with script in hand) and an old coat represents Adam (who would have been over 110 if he was still with them!). The set-up gives them plenty of scope to have fun with every aspect of the staging reminding us constantly that we are watching a theatrical rehearsal with direction being given and cast members interacting constantly with the audience in the shared jokes. It is this approach that breathes new life into the lines and adds freshness and energy to the cast that belies their ages. 

Monday, 26 June 2023

REVIEW: The Pillowman at the Duke of York's Theatre

Martin McDonagh has written some extraordinary plays usually based around an Irish setting with dark comedy spoken by fascinating characters and gripping unexpected plots. His 2003 play The Pillowman which first starred David Tennant as Katurian is now revived by the wonderful Empire Street productions with Lily Allen returning to the West End in the central role. You know what to expect when you buy a ticket for one of his plays, a unique combination of brilliantly funny lines and grotesquely violent interactions. It's not for the faint-hearted or those easily offended by the language or very unpleasant stories and violence. 

This production engages us because of the stunning performances of the four central characters and impressive staging which brings it all to life. Lily Allen is the author Katurian K Katurian who has written 400 stories but only had 1 published. They are a modern collection in the style of the Brothers Grimm Tales, dark morality tales with sinister themes. When we meet her, she is being Interviewed by the lead detective, and good cop, Tupolski, a wonderfully nuanced performance by Steve Pemberton and his violent and impulsive bad cop sidekick Ariel, a frighteningly menacing Paul Kaye about a series of copycat murders based on her stories. Her brother Michal is played with convincingly emotional intensity by Matthew Tennyson, is also arrested and we are uncertain whether he is a fantasist, accomplice or acting out the stories. 

REVIEW: Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written. at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

The programme tells us that the origins of Robin Hood are in 1220 in Yorkshire, but I was brought up watching the black and white TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (made between 1955-1959) starring Richard Greene and for me, those characters will forever be defined by those creations. It has always been a story of good triumphing over evil, of the redistribution of wealth and of people who value the woodlands, so I am not sure why it needs to be rewritten. Carl Goose seeks to reinvent the characters for a modern social and political landscape with a rebalancing of gender roles and I assume to attract new audiences to the folk hero. You are at least notified of what to expect by the colon and “Re-written”, it is never a good sign to see punctuation in the title!

Having seen a great many shows in the last week, I felt I was in some sort of nightmare where so many influences were jumbled up with my memories. Monty Pythonesque Barons trotted on, recast from The Holy Grail. The eye-gouging and graphic violence of “The Pillowman” regularly appeared. The overbearing authority figures dressed in black decreeing death to all appeared from “The Crucible”. The Balladeer from “Assassins” popped up to narrate a link. The King (unnamed) stumbled around, and I expected him to break into “You'll be back” from “Hamilton” at any moment. When the soldiers appeared in hi-vis jackets, I thought Viggo Venn (from Britain’s got talent) was going to prance around the stage at any moment. Then when three Robin Hoods appeared I at least recognised them as being part of the story, Richard Greene’s version in Lincoln green tights, Michael Praed’s version from the 1980’s Robin of Sherwood and a third who represented every other Robin there has been from Yorkshire, Newcastle, Ireland, and Canada. Indeed, their appearances provided some of the best moments of humour and audience appreciation.

REVIEW: Frank and Percy at the Theatre Royal Windsor

Sir Ian McKellen and Roger Allam have established themselves as two national treasures of theatrical performances across the spectrum from Pantomime together, to classic theatre like King Lear and Uncle Vanya, to film and TV like Lord of the Rings and Endeavour and have long proven they have stage presence and acting skills to enthral an audience. It is therefore inspired casting to bring them together for a short summer season at the Theatre Royals of Windsor and Bath. Frank and Percy, a new play by Ben Weatherill, is a gentle meander through twenty-two short scenes showing their relationship evolve from a first chance meeting on the Heath as they walk their respective dogs, Toffee and Bruno (who sadly we never see).

They are playing their age, two elderly single men alone after the end of their previous long-term relationships. Frank (Allam) is a retired history teacher who has lost his wife and Percy (McKellen) is a former Professor of sociology who is about to publish a new book about climate change, has split from his long-term boyfriend but has a daughter in Australia. Percy is openly gay; Frank is persuaded to declare himself as bisexual but still sees Percy as “a bit of an arsehole”. The best line in the whole play is when Frank strokes his own head and declares with delightful pride “My hair is far too precious to me”. 

Wednesday, 21 June 2023

REVIEW: Assassins at the Chichester Festival Theatre


The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical is apparently the first professional staging of the show since the composer’s death and is mounted just as American candidates are announcing their intention to run for President in 2024. Director Polly Findlay and designer Lizzie Clachan draw on this, setting in their restaging at a 2023 National Convention rally and in the White House Oval Office. The Trump like arrival of the Proprietor (Peter Forbes) and the large screens of 24-hour news coverage from CNN and Fox makes a very obvious parallel to the historical stories. However, something is lost in the modern, large-scale, I would say, overblown, approach compared to the joyous intimacy of my previous two viewings of this title at the 200-seat Watermill in Newbury and a 50-seat studio amateur version. The intimacy of those settings and staging as intended as a 20th-century showman’s fairground attraction is completely lost on this grand scale and too often lonely 1 or 2 figures centre stage fail to have the same impact on us.

The fact that we know, either from history or the programme, each of the nine would-be presidential assassins and the outcome of their attempts and that they are all unsympathetic characters with apparently fairly bizarre motivations for their actions means there is little drama or engagement in the story, so we are left plenty of time to reflect on the staging and listen to Sondheim’s unique musical style. Judging by the half-empty Chichester Theatre many of the regulars have already prejudged the show and know that the style is something of an acquired taste. I doubt many visitors to this show will change their views of the music after a very long one hundred- and five-minute (without an interval) version. 

REVIEW: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre

Many plays acquire the by-line “Classic”, but few deserve them as much as the writing of Arthur Miller. The Crucible, written in 1953, is a gripping tale of the Salem Witch trials of 1692 and is based on real characters from those events when hysterical young girls’ wild accusations lead to horrific rigged court trials and the death of the older defendants. The author explained at the time it was an allegory for the US Government’s McCarthyism of the late forties/early fifties when a senator whipped up fear of Soviet espionage and everybody feared a “red under the bed”. Though firmly rooted in its narrative to the seventeenth century the play resonates even more powerfully today when social media amplifies the wildest allegations and beliefs of the outspoken minority, court cases fill the news headlines about claims of media privacy intrusion and parliament is dominated by public inquiries and select committees pouring over claims and counter-claims leading to an appearance sometime of media witch-hunts to undermine authority. With the absence of hard evidence, those in judgement are left to decide based on hearsay and speculation and find it hard to resist their preconceived ideas of the truth.

It is a gripping tale contrasting the passionate and enthusiastic accusations from the young girls led by Abigail Williams, an extraordinary theatrical debut from Milly Alcock who orchestrates the girls’ behaviour and responses, with the good men and women of Salem and the surrounding lands and the earnest but foolish men responsible for investigating and dealing with the accusations. It is a combination of the skill of Miller’s writing and the direction by Lyndsey Turner that though we can see the truth in plain sight, we still can feel the motivation and self-belief of each group and are swept along by the tension and fear that drives the narrative.

REVIEW: Roman Holiday at the Theatre Royal, Bath

In the search for titles for new stage productions the old film catalogues are providing a great source which might appeal to theatre audiences with a memory of the title. The 1953 award-winning Roman Holiday which starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck is the latest romantic tale to find its way to the stage. Adapted for the stage by Kirsten Guenther and Paul Blake and featuring the music of Cole Porter it provides a frivolous enjoyable evening’s entertainment. However, don’t expect the wit and innovation of say the adaption of the 1955 film The Ladykillers or the staging and brilliance of Back to the Future. 

This is a simple story. The programme suggests it is a reversed Cinderella and the script includes the heavy-handed reference “turn into a pumpkin and drive away in a glass slipper” but for those who know their pantomimes, it is more akin to the opening scenes of Aladdin with the Princess escaping the confines of her overprotective court to mingle with the ordinary town folk, meet an eligible bachelor and be pursued by two dubious policemen. The man she meets, Joe, even has a laddish mate, Irving, to assist him but the result is a bit wishy-washy! The programme also alludes to Princess Margaret, the troubled sister of our late Queen who liked a good time away from court, might even hint at press intrusion into more recent Royals and there is a rather explicit call for “closer cooperation with Europe”, but it is all so gentle that if modern references are intended they slip quietly by.

REVIEW: Henry I at the Reading Abbey

The ruins of Reading Abbey, in the shadow of Reading Gaol, provide a perfect setting for historical drama. If the walls could talk, they would have some tales to tell, and you can imagine Oscar Wilde peering out of his cell bars into the ruins. Rabble Theatre led by Toby and Dani Davies are based in Reading and are making a habit of telling local stories, so the Life and Times of Henry I (1068-1135), the youngest son of William the Conqueror, who founded the Abbey, and many people believe is buried in the grounds is a perfect fit. Beth Flintoff’s play is a straightforward chronological docu-drama of his life which at times sounds like it is based on Wikipedia. In British history, we have little familiarity with events between the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the accidental death of King William Rufus in 1100 in the New Forest and the foundation of the Abbey in 1121, so the play provides a fascinating insight into political and social challenges in the periods in between.

They describe themselves as presenting “physical theatre” and Flintoff’s structure includes a delightful combination of original medieval chants and music, highly effective dance sequences, immersive elements drawing the audience into the story and clambering up and down the two-level set. The direction by Hal Chambers creates a high-energy, engaging experience with some lovely comical moments and wonderfully choreographed full-on fight scenes. The script does not shy away from the brutality of Medieval England with rape, eye gouging, pushing an enemy off the tower and leprosy depicted. Flintoff adds a feminist perspective with Adele, Countess of Blois, a lovely performance of earnest authority from Amy Conachan who makes the case that females can be rulers but also argues, “men make wars, women make the future”. Henry’s wife Edith played with charm and great stage presence by Georgie Fellows is also depicted as smart, well-educated and a force to be reckoned with. The only time the script falters is when Henry and Edith (also known as Matilda) becomes narrators of their own story to cover a passage of time, although occasionally phrases jump out as too modern like “I’ll write a book about it”, or “Like it, I love it”.

REVIEW: Wish You Were Dead at the Southampton Mayflower

Peter James’s Brighton-based detective stories of Detective Superintendent Roy Grace have a common feature in their titles with the inclusion of the word “Dead” and usually very dark storylines of murder. In recent years, we have seen productions of Dead Simple (a buried alive story) and Looking Good Dead (snuff movies) and this latest UK tour is Wish you were dead, but it has a different feel. Set in France in the Chateau-sur-L’Eveque, a rather dark and foreboding house where Grace (George Rainsford) and his second wife Cleo (Katie McGlynn) have arrived for a relaxing holiday with their friend and nanny Kaitlyn (Gemma Stroyan) and her boyfriend Jack (Alex Stedman). But from the first moment, all is not as it should be, and they begin to speculate where Jack is, as he was expected to be there when they arrived. 

The dodgy electrics of the house, the lightning flashes outside, the dark walls, the huge suit of armour with a large halberd and the heavy musical interludes between scenes are all the hallmarks of a Hammer horror film and rather obvious devices to add tension and drama. Then add a French maid with an Allo Allo accent as Madame L’Eveque and Vicomte L’Eveque in a wheelchair (like Dr Scott from the Rocky Horror Show) and the drama soon dissipates into a comical parody. When Curtis appears in the second Act as a criminal mastermind from the East End out for revenge, you naturally smile at the overtop hammy characterisation but at least he ups the action, waving his shotgun widely at everyone and moving the story forward to its inevitable conclusion.

Monday, 5 June 2023

REVIEW: Gypsy at the Mill at Sonning

There was a golden age of American musicals after the Second World War when titles like Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), Guys and Dolls (1950), King and I (1951), Paint Your Wagon (1951) and My Fair lady (1956) were first staged but seventy years later the relationship between the male characters and female co-stars can feel dated and uncomfortable while their scores still soar with some of the very best musical theatre tunes. The story of Gypsy (1959) presents a challenge too with the coercive mother, Rose, bullying her daughters into performing in a desperate desire to fulfil her own need for stardom. Producers and Directors need to find a new way to present these fabulous scores to appeal to modern audiences and the Mill at Sonning’s wonderful musical theatre creative team led by Joseph Pitcher has established a track record of doing just that in this unique Berkshire Dinner Theatre. Following the extraordinary success of My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, High Society and Singing in the Rain in recent years they now deliver a fresh modern take on Gypsy which is exquisitely staged and packs a powerful emotional punch. 

When you take your seat after the usual excellent buffet meal of steak pie and cheese and biscuits you can see the auditorium has been transformed by Jason Denver into the stages of 1920’s vaudeville venues. The raised and extended thrust stage with the move of front-row seats brings the performances even closer to the audience in what is already a delightfully intimate venue. There are slick scene changes with witty location descriptors, reminiscent of the signs to introduce each Variety act, built into the props and cloths to set the place like the moment described as Terminal Omaha reflecting both the station, they are in but also the breakup of the troupe. It is an incredibly creative solution to the lack of space and flying capacity and works wonderfully in setting the stage in each location with well-orchestrated cast-led changes.

Wednesday, 17 May 2023

REVIEW: 4000 Miles at the Minerva Studio, Chichester Festival Theatre

In sharp contrast to Noel Coward’s classic The Vortex in the main house at Chichester, Amy Herzog’s 2011 play at the Minerva Studio opposite is a touching and engaging tale of love, grief and growing old which is beautifully played by the small cast on a glorious setting of ninety-one-year-old Vera’s Manhattan flat led by the delightful Eileen Atkins. 

When nineteen-year-old Leo (Sebastian Croft) arrives at his grandmother’s flat unexpectedly in the middle of the night after cycling across America from the west coast to the East, a curious revealing relationship develops. We learn that Vera’s husband died ten years prior and that they were both passionate communists and she has lived alone since staying in contact with her neighbour, Jenny by phone. He is a wayward son who during his epic cycle ride has witnessed the death of his friend Mica in a car accident and responded by continuing the journey alone without contact with his family. She is feeling her age with occasional memory loss, and often “can’t find the words” and a frail frame as she moves unsteadily and quietly around the flat. He is awkward and isolated from friends and family with no money and no clear future. Yet as he stays over the weeks, a strong bond develops between them as we see in episodic scenes their companionship develops and he grows up visibly under her influence.

REVIEW: The Vortex at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Noel Coward wrote, directed, and starred in his 1924 production of The Vortex which was seen at the time as scandalous with its depiction of sexual vanity, implied homosexuality and cocaine abuse but was a commercial success. Written in three acts it, like so many of Coward’s plays are full of acerbic witty lines and reflects the social elite and theatrical types that he mixed with at the time, It feels in the 21st century a classic timepiece of an era and a social group that although they probably exist today is far less familiar to the Theatre going public. The challenge for Director Daniel Raggett is how to bring it to life on the thrust stage of the Chichester Theatre in a way that engages a modern audience. His solution is to crush the action into a ninety-minute dash to the end spiralling down a metaphorical vortex as the luscious period furniture of the opening act is stripped away on a spinning revolve to leave us focused on the central mother and son.

The mother and son in question are played by real-life mother and son, the wonderful Lia Williams as Florence Lancaster, and Joshua James as Nicky. It is a masterstroke of marketing and gives the roles a sense of authenticity but as in other filial acting relationships also inhibits the performance. Williams is magnificent in the first act, dressed in her flying jodhpurs and bouncing with energy, she dominates the eclectic mix of visitors to her flat and flaunts her relationship with her latest young flirt Tom (Sean Delaney) despite the presence of her husband David (Hugh Ross). As she says, “David grew old, and I stayed young”. She is a social butterfly revelling in the attention and loving life without a hint of regret or even a suggestion of ageing desperation that might be driving the behaviour. When James returns home and announces his engagement to Bunty (Isabella Laughland) and that he is “gay, witty and handsome” before they realise that Tom was previously engaged to Bunty, he triggers the “vortex of beastliness” that follows.

Wednesday, 26 April 2023

REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has the expertise and the resources to do full justice to classic plays and this revival of Dancing at Lughnasa (the harvest festival in Ireland), which I first saw at the Lyttleton in 1991 with Frances Tomelty and Alec McCowen, is a testament that they can deliver beautifully staged, brilliantly acted drama that charm and enthral the audience. Yet though I recalled the title and was charmed by it the first time, I had no memory of the characters, or the story so came to this revival fresh.

Brian Friel’s best-known play is exquisitely staged on the large Olivier stage creating a perfect setting of rural Irish countryside a walk away from Ballybeg with its rolling hills, mature trees and fields of wheat surrounding the quaint cottage shared by five sisters. It perfectly captures the idyllic atmosphere of the summer of 1936 when the world outside was changing with war in Spain and manufacturing replacing the traditional homespun skills. The absence of walls for the cottage cleverly gives an intimacy to the small room they spend so much time in but also allows us to clearly see their reactions as they listen or peer out at what is happening in the garden. I’m not sure any commercial theatre could stage a play so perfectly and this is surely what we should expect from our National Theatre.

Saturday, 15 April 2023

REVIEW: The RSC's Hamnet at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The story of Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son is a powerful one of grief and separation guilt although Maggie Farrell who wrote the book on which the play is based had very little documentary evidence to guide the story, so she had to effectively join the dots and imagined the scenes between Shakespeare’s known marriage to Agnes (pronounced here ann-nez) Hathaway and his subsequent success over a decade later as a playwright in London. Both stories take their time in setting up the large number of characters connected to their stories which makes the first Acts rather linear and narrative based but both explode when the tragedies strike and the human impact is laid before us in a way that it is impossible not to be moved by.

At the heart of the play is the relationship between Agnes, played so beautifully by Madeline Mantock and Will, played by Tom Varey. She wonderfully portrays her seduction & love for Will, then the challenges of 16th-century childbirth (with the recollection of her own mother’s death in childbirth), the loving care for a seriously ill child and the horror, grief and guilt over her child’s death. It is an intensely powerful and simply staged scene in which Hamnet dies and is buried which creates an image that stays with you long after you live the Theatre. The three children are very well acted creating distinctive stage presences, Harmony Rose-Bremner is the older sister Susanna, a serious irritated child in contrast with the younger sister Judith, played by Alex Jarrett and her twin brother Hamnet, Ajani Cabey who are playful and caring eleven-year-olds. If anything, we deserved and wanted to see more of Hamnet and his relationship with his family and his appearances, like his life were too short.

Thursday, 13 April 2023

REVIEW: Titanic the Musical at the Mayflower, Southampton

It is 111 years since the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton and sank a few days later on the morning of 15th April 1912 with the loss of over 1500 people. Many families in the City were affected by the event although it often remained an unspoken story in those families for years after. It is therefore very special that this musical based on the event should return to the City to start a new tour in the anniversary week of the tragedy. The emotional connection to the Southampton crew families is drawn out so clearly in the closing scenes as the rescued passengers face the list of names that lost their lives before singing a powerful reprise of the best number in the show "Godspeed Titanic". It provides a climatic conclusion to a production that in this restaging connects with the audience through its storytelling and well-acted characterisations.

The musical was written by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone and won Tony's on Broadway in 1997 but was not staged in the UK until 2013. This production started to great acclaim in the intimate venue of the Southwark Playhouse under the direction Thom Southerland and has grown in this remounting. The Mayflower stage is one of the largest outside the West End, and the sheets of metal and rivets that back the stage and proscenium arch echo the ship and frame the scenes which are mainly depicted by the lighting and some authentic-looking props and furniture. It means the scenes flow seamlessly from one to another and maintain an even pace, or perhaps even speeding up as the ship's speed is increased from 19 knots to 23 knots despite the ice warnings.

REVIEW: The SpongeBob Musical at the Mayflower, Southampton

The Mayflower in Southampton must be the number one venue for Regional Touring musicals and over the last year we have enjoyed Fisherman’s Friend, Les Misérables, Dreamgirls, The Osmonds, Six, and My Fair Lady all of which have visited the huge south coast venue. They must have been very pleased to secure the UK Premiere of The Spongebob Musical which played there last week before a regional tour of seventeen more venues through to September. However, there is only one word to sum up the experience of seeing this show, disappointing.

If you are a fan of the 1999 TV cartoon, as some of the adult bookers must be, you will be disappointed. If you expected to see a show that gathered Tony Awards on its 2018 Broadway premiere of over 300 performances, you might be disappointed by the low production values which look so cheap on the massive Mayflower stage. If it is the writing credits that make you book such as David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “No Control” or Cyndi Lauper’s “Hero is my middle name” or “Bikini Bottom Boogie” credited to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, you will be disappointed that so few of the songs are memorable or notable. It is only at the very end do we get the iconic SpongeBob SquarePants theme tune. If you are looking for some strong message of an eco-friendly saviour against climate change and pollution of the seas you will be disappointed although there are hints about this in the set of plastic bottles to represent Mount Humongous, the volcano that threatens Bikini Bottom.
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