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Tuesday, 19 September 2023

REVIEW: Rebecca at the Charing Cross Theatre

From the first chilling note to the final fiery scene, Rebecca is an all-out melodrama, complete with sinister plots, a soaring score, and characters that wouldn’t look out of place in a panto – but that’s all part of its charm. It’s an over-the-top, entirely gorgeous piece of outlandish theatre, and I absolutely loved it. However, that’s not to say there aren’t a few issues.

One of the biggest problems with Rebecca is that something seems to have been a little lost in translation. The story still makes sense (although perhaps knowing the Daphne du Maurier novel or the 1940 Hitchcock adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine does help with that), but some of the lyrics just seem too on the nose, or just not clever enough to be memorable. Perhaps the original German gives a different feeling, but in English, there are a few moments that get lost and aren’t as strong as they might be.

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.

Thursday, 14 September 2023

REVIEW: God Of Carnage at The Lyric Hammersmith

Yasmina Reza’s (translated by Christopher Hampton) unassuming but vicious satirical unmasking of the modern-day middle class, God Of Carnage, has stirred up attention since it first premiered in 2008. Boasting as a hit on Broadway and The West End, its anticipated revival has been met with great expectation. In this new version directed by Nicholas La Barrie, the question I was left asking, however, is why this play now?

God Of Carnage introduces us to two middle-class, pre-middle-aged couples who are brought together by the act of violence between their two eleven-year-old children Ferdinand and Bruno (whom we never meet). What begins as a ‘civil’ interaction and desire to de-escalate the incident between their boys, quickly unleashes a swirling passive-aggressive dance between the four parents fulled by entitlement, misguided values and unrealistic expectations.

REVIEW: Infamous at the Jermyn Street Theatre

History buffs will instantly recognise Lady Emma Hamilton as an enduring figure who is a gift to any dramatist. Born in 1765 she became a hostess to the great and good in Georgian society. But her notoriety was assured when she became the mistress of Lord Horatio Nelson. The liaison was under the nose of husband Sir William Hamilton who served as Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. April De Angelis has fashioned a compact two-act play that delves into the machinations of a woman who was both mesmerising and enigmatic. Three generations of women populate the narrative and shed new light on a blacksmith’s daughter who started life as Amy Lyon.

The story begins in 1798 and the exotic climes of Naples. Lady Emma Hamilton (Rose Quentin) anxiously awaits the arrival of her beloved Horatio Nelson. She is less enthused by the return of her mother Mrs Cadogan (Caroline Quentin), who has trudged across Europe to see Emma’s love child. She feels a twinge of guilt as the product of a previous tryst lives a lonely existence. But Mrs Cadogan despairs at the direction her daughter’s life has taken. Emma pays little heed to her mother who is seemingly relegated to the role of housekeeper. The years roll by and we find Emma in middle age dreaming of past glories and lost youth. Her spartan surroundings are shared with Horatia Nelson; the illegitimate daughter of Lord Nelson who craves freedom and recognition of her heritage.

Sunday, 3 September 2023

REVIEW: The RSC's Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Wils Wilsons’ most recent adaptation of Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was refreshing in its tradition.

Though a far cry from a pit and candles true to Shakespeare experience, compared to some of the brash attempts at refreshing the classics that the RSC and others have presented in the last few years, this production was purposeful and effective.

The scene is set with conviction as Alasdair Macrae’s brass score echoes around the auditorium and the witches (Amber Sylvia Edwards, Eilidh Loan, and Dylan Read) twist and contort their way around the stage. This was to be a sombre tragedy indeed.

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.

REVIEW: Spiral at the Jermyn Street Theatre

It's not often that cast and principal creatives appear on the same stage. But Spiral has that rare distinction with author Abigail Hood starring alongside director Kevin Tomlinson. This new production follows an initial run at the Park Theatre in 2018 and has now earned a revival at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Spiral tells the story of two relationships; one wrecked by trauma and the other defined by controlling behaviour. Gill and Tom (Rebecca Crankshaw and Jasper Jacob) are a couple still coming to terms with the disappearance of their 14-year-old daughter. Tom seeks solace in the company of escort Leah (Abigail Hood). She soon becomes a surrogate daughter to Tom; but Leah's boyfriend Mark (Kevin Tomlinson) has other ideas. He sends Leah out as an escort but is strangely jealous of her getting too close to clients. Gill is frustrated by Tom's apparent fixation with Leah. He sees the relationship as nothing more than a coping mechanism and is able to communicate with Leah in ways he can’t with his wife. But Gill senses it will have implications for his job as a school teacher. Mark sees Leah as a meal ticket and controls her very existence. She is desperate to get away from him but seems to be trapped in a spiral.

Sunday, 30 July 2023

REVIEW: Ride at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant

In a world filled with familiar shows that pedal out the same old story time and again, Ride shines as a beacon of originality, artfully weaving the little-known history of Annie Londonderry into the most extraordinary and exciting musical experience. Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams have skillfully crafted a captivating narrative that transcends time and place, touching on subtle feminist themes, the power of storytelling, and the complex relationship between reality and self-perception. But don’t worry; it’s done in a fun, fascinating, and fabulously fantastic way that makes the story even more compelling that it already is.

That story is that of Annie Londonderry who, on the back of a wager that may or may not have actually happened (she is the most unreliable of narrators, as we come to find out), carries out the astonishing feat of cycling solo around the world. And this was in 1894. And she’s a woman. And now she’s home and wants to tell her story (and get a job as a journalist in the process). That’s impressive, but it goes deeper than that. Ride shows Annie Londonderry as more than just a record-breaker on a bike – she’s a real person and she’s just as complicated as the rest of us.

Sunday, 16 July 2023

REVIEW: Titanic the Musical at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

The towering sheets of the steel frame of Titanic covered the backdrop of the New Victoria Theatre and coated the proscenium. The atmospheric lighting (designed by Howard Hudson) highlighting Mr Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s leading architect as he scrawled his designs in silence while the audience took their seats. As the music started, we were instantly transported to April 11th 1912; the day passengers embarked for Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage. Cast flooded the stage and the aisles, bringing bustling energy through the auditorium.

Good luck finding a single person who knows nothing about the Titanic and her demise. The tragedy of 1912 remains prevalent in hearts all around the world thanks to the sensational James Cameron 1999 film but this musical takes an entirely different approach. This is not the story of two lovers from different classes thrust together and torn apart in a few short days, but an epic ensemble piece with a dozen tales all woven together with beautiful delicacy. I would stress over and over again how this musical is whole-heartedly an ensemble piece; a welcomed change from the conventional casting structure we see all too often.

REVIEW: The Tempest Re-Imagined for Everyone Aged Six and Over at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Prepare to be transported to a world of magic and imagination with The Tempest Re-Imaged for Everyone Ages Six and Over at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. This captivating production, tailor-made for young children, weaves together the traditional words of Shakespeare along with modern songs and references that will help children really understand the story and appreciate the original play at the same time – it’s a clever idea that works well, creating a charming, fun and funny play.

Before the play even begins, the audience is greeted with the soothing sounds of waves crashing on the shore as they enter the performance area of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. This immersive beginning sets the tone for the enchanting journey about to unfold, immediately transporting us to the island where the story takes place. In fact, this immersive storytelling is a feature of The Tempest Re-Imagined, with both Ariel (Juliet Agnes) and Caliban (Ashley D Gale) starting the show by teaching the audience a tune to sing, as well as some dance moves. There’s more of this audience participation at various points throughout The Tempest, but it stays just the right side of panto and keeps everyone engaged.

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: Then, Now, Next at the Southwark Playhouse

New musicals with new songs are an increasingly rare sight in a genre dominated by revivals and greatest hits packages. But just occasionally a new musical has the potential to cut through the fringe and strike out on the West End stage. ‘Then, Now and Next’ could follow the same trajectory as 'Six' with the right promotion and some delicate tweaks. The Southwark Playhouse steals the honours yet again with the World Premiere of this new piece by Christopher J Orton and Jon Robyns.

The story pivots on the life and loves of Alex Shaw (Alice Fearn) and the two partners who came to dominate her life; Peter Connors (Peter Hannah) and Stephen Hayes (Joaquin Pedro Valdes). The story flashes back and forward as a satisfying plot gradually unfolds. Two key phases alternate as snapshots of Alex aged 30 and 40 illustrate a complex emotional landscape. In the present, Alex is ensconced in a seemingly happy relationship with the goofy but lovable Peter. They have a young son and Peter is itching to slip a ring on Alex's finger. He is the definition of solid and dependable. But Alex is still haunted by the memory of Stephen who may be her greatest love. She is conflicted by a man who makes her comfortable and the memory of a lover who genuinely excited her. The narrative explores the tantalising ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ in life. However hard we try fate always takes a hand in our destiny, but should we let the past stop us from looking forward?

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. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2023

REVIEW: Tarantino Live at Riverside Studios

If you put all of Tarantino’s biggest hits, some classic 70s rock and 15 musical theatre legends in a big gory blender, you would come out with Tarantino Live. The blood-red concoction you’ve just whipped up packs a punch. It’s strong, it’s spicy, and it’s maybe just a touch too sickly sweet. 

The smashing together of all of Tarantino’s best characters to the music of his iconic soundtracks could have been a car crash, and, to For The Record’s credit, this show was far from that. It bursts with talent, enthusiasm, and fun, and managed to weave an impossible tapestry between each of the great director’s bizarre worlds. 

Alexander Zane firmly set the tone as an MC turned film critic, as he leads the audience through the thick web of lore that the performers must carefully pick their way through. Often an actor will switch characters mid-song, which if you aren’t familiar with all of the films on display is probably quite jarring. 

Monday, 26 June 2023

REVIEW: Mrs Doutbfire at the Shaftesbury Theatre

With the weight of the 1993 classic film on their shoulders, the cast, crew, and creatives of Mrs Doubtfire the Musical set out to bring the story to the stage; and what a triumph it is!

This show is a marathon for the whole company, but none so more than Gabriel Vick who takes the iconic role of Mrs Doubtfire. Taking on a role made famous by Robin Williams on the silver screen, Vick is an unstoppable force on stage. Vick brings unyielding energy to both Daniel Hillard and his alter-ego Mrs Doubtfire and is one of the many great driving forces behind the bouncy pace of this musical. His comic timing has been expertly crafted, matched by his well-honed impersonations which are highlighted brilliantly in a meeting with Micha Richardson’s Janet Lundy (the famous “I do voices” scene). Richardson brings a welcome warmth to the traditionally cold character which works well. Cameron Blakely and Marcus Collins pair up as Frank Hillard and Andre Mayem. Both bring great energy to the stage, and Frank’s inability to lie without shouting is a constant source of laughter throughout. Match this with their chemistry and satisfyingly sassy attitudes; they are a match made in heaven (well, San Fransisco).

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. 
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