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Monday, 27 March 2023

REVIEW: Hay Fever at the Mill at Sonning

It’s nearly 100 years since Noel Coward’s farcical comedy about the eccentric Bliss Family was first staged in the West End and it seems appropriate to mount a new production at the lovely Mill at Sonning in Berkshire just 12 miles from Cookham where the play is set. Yet the play is something of a curiosity of the period filled with theatrical games played by the self-centred egotistical family. Its artificiality may have amused us 100 years ago but now it all seems a little tiresome and we never care for any of the characters or are particularly amused by their affected behaviour. It does not have the exquisite wit and banter of his 1930 play Private Lives, the spectacle of the 1931 extravaganza Cavalcade, the beauty and romance of his 1936 play Still Life (so delightfully revived at the Mill at Sonning recently), the comical self-parody of the 1942 Present Laughter or even the wonderful characters of the 1941 Blithe Spirit. 

Perhaps students of Coward’s extensive legacy of plays and music will see in this earlier play elements that he would later develop in his work. It is easy to see why Critics often gave mixed reviews when his new plays opened but also to recognise the enduring impact he had on Theatre. Therefore, if you have not seen the play before it is worth a trip down to Berkshire to catch it and reflect on why the central character Judith has been played over the years by such as Edith Evans, Celia Johnson, Penelope Keith, Maria Aitken, Geraldine McEwan, Judi Dench, Stephanie Beacham, Lindsay Duncan, Googie Withers, Dora Bryan, Celia Imrie, Nichola McAuliffe and Felicity Kendal. This is a phenomenal roll call and suggests it’s a part that the best female actresses of the day love to play.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

REVIEW: The King and I at the Wycombe Swan Theatre

Bartlett Sher’s magnificent revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful 1951 musical was first produced for the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2015 before being remounted at the London Palladium and released to cinemas in 2018. The production has been recast and remounted for an extensive UK tour which began in January 2023 in Canterbury and currently continues until November in Norwich and last week visited the Swan in High Wycombe for a sell-out week. It is well worth catching with its beautiful score, simple slick staging and appropriately diverse cast lead by Helen George as Anna and Darren Lee as the King.

Helen George is best known for her role in Call the Midwife but fully inhabits the role of the Governess arriving in Siam with her young son Louis and standing up to and winning over the dictatorial King. She handles the huge crinoline dresses with aplomb and delivers her songs with great passion and a good voice. She may not have the stage presence of Kellie O’Hara who played the role in New York and London, but she gives full range to the emotions from anger to caring and growing respect for the King and makes a very good and convincing Anna. We feel her nerves in “Whistle a happy tune”, her sorrow and hope in “Hello young lovers” and her joy in “Getting to know you”.

REVIEW: Accidental Death of An Anarchist at the Lyric Hammersmith

Anyone familiar with pitching a theatre show these days will know there is one question you always have to answer to be in with a shot of doing your show; ‘Why now?’ This is a question that this production of Accidental Death of An Anarchist at the Lyric Hammersmith answers with every second of its stage time.

Though Dario Fo’s classic satire was based on the death of a real-life anarchist in police custody following the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing, at its heart it is a play about corruption in the police that is not limited to a time or place. 

A maniac walks into a police station impersonating a judge, forensic specialist and bishop… and that’s not even the funniest part! Tom Basden’s adaption of Darren Fo and Franca Rame’s ‘Accidental Death Of An Anarchist’ is from start to finish a comedic masterpiece filled to the brim with jokes, gags and more! 

REVIEW: Farm Hall at the Jermyn Street Theatre

First came the euphoria of VE Day in May 1945. People rejoiced after six long years of war came to an end. The first summer of peacetime ambled gently into view. But war was still raging in the Far East. Come August an atomic bomb will land in Hiroshima and provoke Japan’s unconditional surrender. The aftershock would be equally felt at Farm Hall in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Six of Germany's top nuclear scientists have been detained at the mansion following their capture by allied forces.

Known collectively as Hitler's 'Uranium Club' they gradually adjust to their surroundings. They half-heartedly rehearse for their own production of Blythe Spirit. Redacted newspapers and a hastily repaired piano are the only other sources of amusement. The group have their own peculiar cliques but is frequently split according to age and status. Hahn (Forbes Masson) is the linchpin who discovered nuclear fission, a process that made the atomic bomb possible. Von Laue (David Yelland) is the elder statesman who won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Diebner (Julius D'Silva) was a leading member of the Nazi Party; while Heizenberg (Alan Cox) is another Nobel Prize winner and mentor to Bagge (Archie Backhouse). Weizsacker (Daniel Boyd), a younger member of the group comes from a well-connected, influential family.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

REVIEW: Bonnie and Clyde at the Garrick Theatre

Wanted: London’s Most Wanted Musical, and winner of Best New Musical at the WhatsOnStage Awards 2023! You want a tip-off? You can find them at The Garrick Theatre, in the heart of central London in the form of Bonnie & Clyde the Musical.

Romanticized by the media at the time, the story of Bonnie and Clyde was far from your traditional love story. However, despite their appalling legacy of violence, it was in fact their undeniable dedication and love for one another that has made its mark in the history books.

The story follows two small-town kids from rural America, each with dreams of their own, thrust together into a life on the run, full of adventure, passion, and crime.

Monday, 6 March 2023

REVIEW: The Great British Bake Off Musical at the Noel Coward Theatre

The Great British Bake Off - the hit TV show that’s taken audiences all over the world by storm. Also, the musical nobody asked for, and maybe there’s good reason. 

If you’ve seen the TV show you’ll be very familiar with the basis of this musical. Eight bakers, two presenters and two judges. Through the musical, we lightly explore these eight aspiring bakers guided by our two presenters with the occasional appearance of our two very well-loved presenters. Other than that, there’s not much basis for this show. 

With a very loose storyline that appears clunky and drawn out, we never actually reach below the surface of each baker. And as for the judges and presenters, the material lacks and we struggle to find the difference between parody and authenticity. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

REVIEW: Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at the Wyndham's Theatre


Every musical theatre fan is going to want to slap me silly when I say that I've never actually seen Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! I didn’t grow up watching those classic musicals but now as an adult, I make an effort to go and see them to make up for lost time. What I didn’t expect, was for this production to have such an emotional effect on me.   

Oklahoma! is a Rogers and Hammerstein staple, first performed in 1943 on Broadway this piece has certainly stood the test of time as it remains to be one of the most famous musical classics. This production, which is currently playing at the Wyndham's Theatre, has transferred from a fantastic run at the Young Vic and prior to this, a stellar run on Broadway. 

REVIEW: Hedda Gabler at the Reading Rep

Reading Rep is celebrating its tenth anniversary of its formation and a second season in its new venue with some bold and original adaptations of familiar stories. After the glorious success of a one-woman version of Jekyll and Hyde with the incredible Audrey Brisson and an intriguing resetting of Christmas Carol in the Huntley and Palmer Reading Biscuit factory comes a modern adaptation of Hedda Gabler set somewhere near London. This risk-taking approach to theatre combined with a £10 ticket price for those under 30 appears to be engaging the local communities and bringing a younger excitable audience into the venue which is to be celebrated and applauded.

The original Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler was written in 1891 around a woman trapped in a marriage and a house that she does not want and has been considered by many as one of the great dramatic female roles in theatre. When I saw Sheridan Smith play the role at Old Vic in 2012, she beautifully captured the tragic consequences of her manipulative behaviour in a grand period house. This new production at the Reading Rep intimate venue is written by Harriet Madeley and seeks to reinvent the story in a modern setting with the two rival academic authors competing for publication as well as the attention of Hedda now given a modern twist by changing the gender of Eilert Lovburg, her former lover to Isla. The rest follows with the three women, Isla, Thea and Hedda secretly attracted to each other, seemingly without the men, George, her husband, and Brack, now a publishing agent being fully aware. Curiously the effect is that rather than feeling Hedda is trapped in a six-week-old marriage, she seems manipulative and in control of her actions and one wonders why she simply does not leave her husband whose mind is clearly on his work. Indeed, the characters have become one-dimensional and their jumps in behaviours seem unrealistic and unbelievable.

REVIEW: Charlotte and Theodore at the Theatre Royal Bath

The title of Charlotte and Theodore, the new play by Ryan Craig which is enjoying its world premiere at the Ustinov Studio in Bath until 18th March before a short tour to Richmond and Cambridge, does not do justice to the brilliant writing and performances of this clever two-hander. The promotional blurb states, “cancel culture, gender politics, trans rights, online abuse and power struggles are all at play on a university campus” and suggests a rather dry woke debate about modern society driven by social media activism but instead the ninety-minute romp is a funny, witty and pacy exploration of a couple’s relationship over ten years which resonates with Generation X and older audiences. Despite running straight through it never stops amusing and engaging and we could have happily sat through another few scenes of their life together. 

The script is a beautifully observed debate about modern-day gender roles in family life, the ambition and desire for career success and the impact of the community they live in on their relationship. It’s packed with metaphors and allegories that illustrate and amuse and seem to sit naturally in the mouths of two philosophy lecturers at the university. How do you describe a desk that identifies as a stool? Why symbolically is Teddy's last costume change in front of Lotte’s wardrobe? What happens when a flock of swarming birds get caught in a change of wind direction?

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

REVIEW: Medea at the Soho Place

‘Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned’. We know the saying, but do we know the extent that these ‘scorned’ women will go to exact their revenge? In the instance of Medea (Sophie Okenedo), she’ll undertake the ultimate path to revenge in Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of the shocking original tale from Euripides. 

Its premise is simple enough, Medea’s husband Jason (Ben Daniels) has been unfaithful and is to marry another. Unfortunately, it all gets rather complicated for Medea when her rash actions and words leave her no other choice but to be exiled from the city along with her two sons by King Creon. 

REVIEW: Sister Act at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

When I saw this production at the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo in August 2022 with an all-star cast including Jennifer Saunders, Keala Settle and Beverley Knight it was a glitzy star-driven show with ticket prices up to £250 to justify and while enjoyable I noted that the show was designed for the UK Tour to follow and would represent much better value in regional venues around the UK. The tour arrived at the New Victoria Woking this week with a full house on a Monday night with a top price of £62 and proved that it is a wonderful feel-good party night out. The tour will now continue until April 2024 with 24 more venues to visit so there are plenty of opportunities to get a party together to go and enjoy the show.

The Hammersmith cast largely continues on the tour with Lesley Joseph stepping up as Mother Superior to replace Jennifer Saunders, Sandra Marvin moving from alternate Deloris Van Cartier to replace Beverley Knight and Catherine Millsom stepping up as Sister Mary Patrick to replace Keala Settle. Overall, the band and ensemble are reduced to make it more economical to tour but the show still delivers a fun, nostalgic and uplifting night out and is no less enjoyable despite the absence of the headline stars.

Saturday, 18 February 2023

REVIEW: The Lehman Trilogy at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

The buzz surrounding Stefano Massini's The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes, has remained strong since its premiere at the National Theatre back in 2018. Five Tony awards later, it is back gracing the stage at the beautiful Gillian Lynne Theatre to tell the story of three Jewish brothers who immigrated to America in the mid-nineteenth century to cement their names as key founders in the story of Western capitalism. 

The play spans 160 years, from the brother's modest arrival in Alabama where they went from shopkeepers to heavy-weight bankers in New York through to 2008 when the reign of the Lehman name on Wall St came to an end. The story evokes a section of American history shrouded by injustice, war and the prospect of new beginnings that never allows anyone to have equal footing but does allow for the brave a chance to reach new heights.

REVIEW: Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

A decade since its glorious premiere, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty became the fastest-selling production in the New Adventures’ history when it was revived at Sadler’s Wells just a few months ago. Now embarking on another UK tour, the delights and dreams of this production find their way to a theatre near you, so you have no excuse to miss this utterly sensational ballet.

This gothic turn of the classic fairy tale beguiles and bewitches. It is a haunting and dark reimagining of the story of Princess Aurora we all know so well. With vampires, fairies and sorcerers at every turn, this production is not your typical fairy tale by any standard. Described as a “Gothic Romance”, there is much conflict and violence to be seen here. With peril seemingly around every corner and much to be feared, Sleeping Beauty keeps you on the edge of your seat.

REVIEW: Fishermen’s Friends at the Mayflower Southampton

The story of Fishermen’s Friend singers from Port Isaac in Cornwall began in 1995 but sprung to wider recognition with the release of their album in April 2010 which charted at number 9 on UK album charts and then became a charming film in 2019 with a sequel in 2022. It became a stage musical in October 2021 and after a trip to Toronto, the tour continues until 2023 May around the UK. If you are a fan of their sea shanties or looking for a feel-good night out it is worth catching the tour but don’t expect anything new or groundbreaking. It is simply a fun night out.

It is a large cast to tour with 24 performers on stage and a large grand set designed by Lucy Osbourne of the Port Isaac Harbour which is cleverly adapted for other interior scenes in the Golden Lion Pub and later In Compton Street London. At the heart of the story, and the characters that give the show an emotional connection, are three generations of a family. Maggie (played with a strong Cornish accent and a lot of charm by Susan Penhaligon) and Jago, her husband and elderly fisherman (played by Cornishman Robert Duncan) are parents to Jim who seems to act as spokesman for the band and carries the scars of his wife leaving him (a gruff James Gaddas) and grandparents to Alywyn (a strong performance from Parisa Shamir with a delightful haunting delivery of several folk ballads).

REVIEW: The Mirror Crack’d at the Wycombe Swan Theatre

Agatha Christie’s detective creation Miss Marple has been adapted for film, TV, and stage in many incarnations from Margaret Rutherford (in the sixties), Joan Hickson (1984-1992), and Geraldine McEwan (2004-2008) and in this latest stage adaptation Susie Blake plays the role more in the style of Hickson and McEwan than Rutherford. Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d cleverly uses Marple’s rather static investigation model in this case with a sprained ankle as a springboard to create a stage adaption that explores different characters' recall of key moments around a murder through flashback re-enactments to accompany the witnesses’ interview with her and the Chief Inspector Craddock (Oliver Boot).

This then requires a fluid setting where characters appear while Marple reflects or chats to someone, so everything revolves around Adrian Linford’s single truck of a corridor between two see-through walls. It fails to have a sense of period, the fifties I think, but it allows for some creative moments where we see through the walls someone is listening in or for an imagined lineup of suspects. Not so clever was the poor masking of the stage left wing which telegraphed each entrance and even props being prepared for a scene or the lack of personal microphones which meant some voices were very quiet in the large Wycombe Swan auditorium. However, these are the compromises of a touring show with different size stages and although irritating did not detract from the overall quality of the production.

REVIEW: The Oyster Problem at the Jermyn Street Theatre

When Madame Bovary was first published in 1856 it scandalised Parisian society and brought charges of immorality. However, for author Gustave Flaubert it secured his place as the father of literary realism. A minute dissection of the bourgeois classes had left him on the horns of a dilemma; how does one follow up such a massive hit without losing artistic integrity? In the Oyster Problem, Flaubert fights the reality of a dwindling income and the absence of oysters, wine and other luxuries that only money can buy.

Gustave Flaubert (Bob Barrett) sits at the hub of the literary community in Paris. He merrily banters with Emile Zola (Peter Hannah), who has supplemented his income by writing for newspapers. He urges Flaubert to embrace the commercial potential of writing and cure his financial woes. It is a case of writing popular novels that sell to a mass audience. Flaubert is unrepentant and refuses to cheapen his artistry. His close friend Ivan Turgenev (Giles Taylor) provides a sympathetic ear but reluctantly backs Zola’s view. Flaubert’s niece Caroline Commanville (Rosalind Lailey) is a talented artist but grows increasingly concerned for the family’s finances. With the assistance of George Sand (Norma Atallah), Zola and Turgenev hatch a plan to secure a paid position, but will Flaubert grasp the nettle?

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

REVIEW: Girl from the North Country at the Alexandra Birmingham

Sombre, solemn and powerful; Girl from the North Country returns with a UK tour that brings us back to reality and exalts human emotion.

Conor McPherson’s book tells the story of Nick Laine – the proprietor of a shabby guesthouse, and his family. His wife Elizabeth suffers from a form of dementia which impels outbursts from comical and childlike to violent and inhibited. The arrival of two unexpected guests during a stormy night makes a change in the inn and affects every character who inhabit it.

The set felt full and purposeful for a touring production and took the audience back to the melancholy year of 1934. The sepia-toned colour scheme felt drab and true to the era, setting the scene of a cosy, rundown guesthouse in Minnesota. With the Great Depression infiltrating the downbeat mood on stage, an on-edge and pensive receptiveness were abounding. 

Monday, 6 February 2023

REVIEW: The RSC's 2023 Production of The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Comical, engaging and full of vibrancy – The RSC have produced a delight of humour, physical theatre and haunting melodies in this season’s production of The Tempest.

This Shakespearean piece tells the story of the magical Duke, Prospero, who had been usurped from Milan and left stranded on an island with their daughter. Traditionally played by male actors, Alex Kingston takes on the role of the sorcerous character who with the help of slave Caliban and servant Ariel, navigates a storm of opportunity to win back her dukedom. 

Thursday, 2 February 2023

REVIEW: 2:22 A Ghost Story at The Lyric Theatre

2.22 - A Ghost Story is quite a West End phenomenon, not so much because of its subject of paranormal activity in the bedroom of an old-fashioned London house but because of its ability to attract an audience on the basis of the star casting as Jenny, the young mother who reports experiencing some disturbing activity at 2.22 am on each of the last few nights. Lily Allen (5.1 m twitter & 1.5m Instagram followers) opened the show at the Noel Coward in August 2021, Giovanni Fletcher (465k Twitter & 2m Instagram followers) played the Gielgud, Laura Whitmore (438k twitter & 1.5 m Instagram followers) played at the Criterion and now Cheryl (formerly known as Cheryl Cole) with 5.5 m Twitter and 3.4m Instagram followers stars in the show for the short season at the Lyric. No doubt the jubilant producers are already planning its next surprising cast announcement and another move of venue at the end of the current run. The casting is clearly designed to appeal to the followers of these young high-profile stars and seems to be working very effectively so reviews will hardly affect sales as each star brings the publicity and fan base to ensure a successful run.

Cheryl makes her stage debut in the role as Jenny and once you have adjusted to her Tyneside accent which means occasionally will lose a few words, she makes a solid job of conveying the love of a new mother, the concern at the mysterious noises, and the anger at her disbelieving husband. After relatively nervous and contained opening scenes, she burst into life as the mystery unfolds and we are drawn more into the simmering tensions between her and her husband and their guests. It is a very credible and convincing performance suggesting this could be the start of a new career for her.

REVIEW: The Cher Show at the New Wimbledon Theatre

There are a few four-letter words that we truly know well and have experienced, to name few they are love, hate and … Cher. With an impressive and illustrious career spanning decades. The Cher Show brings to life that career in glamorous and dazzling fashion. 

The story is told through three versions of Cher, Babe (Millie O’Connell), Lady (Danielle Steers) and Star (Debbie Kurup). The trio each tells various parts spanning from the 50s through to the 90s. 

Immediately, we have to mention the glorious set design by Tom Rogers. The backstage stage setting draped from top to bottom with rows of the iconic Cher wigs on display on mannequin heads for all to gaze upon and admire. Another clever design is the props used within the show to show the progressive timeline whilst also being integrated into the story. 
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