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Twang!!

This was the fifth of five shows for which Lionel Bart was the sole composer and lyricist over a six year period in the early sixties, the most famous of which was of course Oliver. I’ve seen the others, though they are rarely put on, and though they’re not as good as his masterpiece, they are decent populist fare and they did well at the time. This last one was a troubled show which the director, his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood, walked out of before its opening. Bert Shevelove (book writer of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) came to the rescue, but he couldn’t. The opening night was a fiasco and the show a critical and commercial flop (closing early, allowing one of it’s stars, Ronnie Corbett, to take a job on the Frost Report. It’s other stars included Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw and Long John Baldry!). The fact Bart had added an LSD habit to his heavy drinking may have something to do with it. I’m not sure it’s been seen in London since; this Bart fan certainly hasn’t seen it.

There’s a new book by Guildford School of Acting’s Julian Woolford, commissioned by the Bart estate ten years ago and first performed at GSD, and the music has been adapted by Richard John, but I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t breathe new life into the story of Robin Hood, who’s lost his twang, hence the title, but the production does, by effectively sending itself, and musical theatre, up in a bawdy innuendo-laden romp. There are lots of quotations from and references to other musicals – Les Mis, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde, Wicked etc., a running joke where character Alan-A-Dale is trying to write a song called Living Doll (one of Bart’s, of course), somewhat like the title character in a much later musical Blondel, set in the Crusades with King Richard at the same time as this in Britain featuring his brother, and a lot of jazz hands choreography.

Whatever you think of the show, panto in my case, you have to admire the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast, under Bryan Hodgson’s direction, who give it their all and whose fun is infectious. After the first few minutes, I wasn’t expecting a fun night, but they swept me away and it was.

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I rather liked Thomas Eccleshare’s quirky multi-layered SciFi satire, combining the use and abuse of technology, parent / child relationships and grief. An intriguing, highly original piece.

Harry likes to tinker and considers himself a king of the flatpack. He and his wife Max start with small projects, then graduate to building themselves a replacement son, Jan. From here the story of their lost son Nick is interwoven with the development of their new one, until malfunctions begin to cause chaos and ruin relationships with neighbours Paul, Laurie and their daughter Amy. Along the way we see how parents mould their children’s attitudes and values and how helpless they can be when they grow up.

There are something like fifty scenes in 100 minutes, which is at first irritating, until you get into the rhythm of the scene changes, where props arrive and leave on conveyors, members of the cast move robotically & jumpily and the small cinema-screen-like space enlarges and opens up. I was impressed by Cai Dyfan’s design. It’s a fine ensemble, but I have to single out Brian Vernal, who plays Jan and Nick with some deft switching between and within characters.

The play got me thinking a lot about where technology and AI in particular might be taking us, but also about how we mould real human beings too and how grief can lead to desperation. A thought-provoking, well executed piece expertly staged by Hamish Pirie.

Kay Mellor is a prolific writer of populist TV drama and Fat Friends was one of her early successes, running to four series over five years. I never saw it. It’s also famous for connecting Ruth Jones and James Corden, who went on to create the hugely successful sitcom Gavin & Stacy together, taking cast members Alison Steadman and Sheridan Smith with them. Now thirteen years on, Mellor has turned it into a musical with a score by Nick Lloyd Webber.

It revolves around slimming class Super Slimmer, franchised by Julie Fleshman, run by Lauren, who also runs the wedding dress shop. Betty, who’s lost five stone, is expected to win Slimmer of the Year but she doesn’t. Her daughter Kelly, soon to be married, shows off her flesh proudly, which her sister films and it goes viral. Fleshman decides to exploit Kelly and challenges her to lose enough weight to fit into the wedding dress of her dreams, in which case she will pay for both the dress and the wedding itself, which is handy as her parents uninsured Fish & Chip shop has burnt down leaving them stony broke! Kelly is a hopeless dieter so Fleshman helps her with some dubious pills. Will she make it?

The plotting is a bit clunky, but it’s a good enough story for musical theatre with it’s heart in the right place and a worthy body image message. The songs, in a whole range of styles, are OK though I’m not expecting to remember them tomorrow. It’s a touring cast to put bums on seats with TV talent show winners aplenty, a Corrie legend and a former pop star for good measure. In some cities there’s a cricketer too, but we were spared that in Dartford.

There were some very strong vocal performances, notably from an almost unrecognisable blonde Jodie Prenger as Kelly and Sam Bailey as her mum Betty; both acted well too. Natalie Anderson and Jonathan Halliwell were good as the Jewish slimming class leader and young Anglican vicar who fancy each other. Joel Montague is a very likeable Kevin, Kelly’s intended, also with good vocals (I do wonder what Freddie Flintoff makes of this role), as is Kevin ‘Curly’ Kennedy in the less demanding role of dad Fergus. Atomic Kitten’s Natasha Hamilton makes a serviceable baddie as Fleshman.

I didn’t take to the Orchard Theatre Dartford, where the show seemed somewhat distant, or its noisy audience, or to Dartford itself come to think of it, but I’m sure my knee will recover eventually, and I’m glad I caught the tour. If they’re planning to take it ‘up west’ they’ll need to up their game a bit. It’s a first musical for writer / lyricist / director Mellor and only the second for Lloyd-Webber Jnr and that does show a bit.

Pressure

For me, history at school ended before the Second World War, so my knowledge of it has always been weak. The first I knew of the importance of Scottish meteorologist James Stagg was watching the film Dunkirk last year. David Haig’s play pre-dates this film, taking us through his story in great depth and it’s both fascinating and entertaining.

Stagg was given the military rank of Group Captain and sent to work for allied commander General Eisenhower, alongside his American meteorologist Colonel Crick, three days before the proposed D-Day landings, which they’d been planning for three years. Crick’s forecasts were based on historical patterns, but Stagg was more scientific, in particular taking into account upper air movements like the then less well known jet-stream. They clashed and contradicted one another and Eisenhower was faced with choosing between them.

Though we know he chose to follow Stagg’s local experience and scientific approach, which turned out to be a pivotal choice in the outcome of the war, the telling of the story has you on the edge of your seat nonetheless, a testament to Haig’s expert writing and Jonathan Dove’s well paced direction. Two other parallel stories – the relationship between Eisenhower and his British aide and confidente Kay Summersby and Stagg’s wife’s impending confinement with complications – add two additional layers, which gives the play even more depth.

Haig plays the dour, earnest Scot himself, delicately balancing his seriousness, professionalism and passion for his science, under intense pressure, knowing his decision will affect 300,000 lives. Malcolm Sinclair has great presence as Eisenhower, likeable at first, his sincerity becoming questionable. Laura Rogers is outstanding as the loyal, assertive chauffeur and aide Kay, who plays a key role that could be easily forgotten. It’s a first class ensemble that includes some impressive doubling-up, notably Michael Mackenzie as an Admiral and an electrician (which I’d never have realised without the programme), and an auspicious professional stage debut from Bert Seymour as young meteorologist Andrew.

A thoroughly satisfying night at the theatre, where a true story, excellent writing, expert staging and fine performances come together to provide enthralling storytelling. It’s transferring to the West End, so be sure to catch it there if you miss it at the Park Theatre.

There are actually four Hans Christian Andersen tales adapted here. The rather sad Little Matchgirl bookends three lighter tales – Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea – two of which take up much more of the evening, a contrasting if odd combination.

Our narrator is Ole Shuteye and the five performers are collectively called Shuteyes (and the band The Swan Vestas!). The adaptations, by Emma Rice (who also directs) and Joel Horwood, have contemporary references, in particular in The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the weavers have become modern fashionistas and we get living designers name-checked and some Spice Girls music. Not all of this contemporary stuff works; it sometimes gets in the way of the magic of the fairy-tales and turns the show into posh panto for Waitrose customers, with Trump, Brexit and even cheating cricketers thrown in for good measure. It does work for the title tale though, where the contemporary spin involves war and homelessness.

Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are excellent and the original music by Stephen Warbeck, played by an onstage trio and one of the performers, is delightful. Niall Ashdown makes a cheeky and charming narrator as well as the gullible Emperor. Katy Owen and Guy Hughes were huge fun as the fashionistas and the latter made an excellent prince. Edie Edmundson’s puppet matchgirl melts your heart. It really does fit the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse like a glove.

There’s much to enjoy, but I do wish they’d reigned in the pantoesque stuff and concentrated on the magic of the fairy-tales, something Emma Rice does so well.

Brief Encounter

This is what Emma Rice does best – creating theatrical magic. It’s her 4th such show in the last 2 years – Romantics Anonymous, 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and this revival of her 2007 masterpiece, four of the best of her seventeen shows I’ve seen. It’s back in the same cinema, just down the road from the location of the film’s world premiere in Regent Street seventy-two years ago.

It interweaves the film’s story of the relationship between Laura and Alec with playful scenes involving the other characters at the station – Asst. Station Master Albert and Refreshment Room Manager Myrtle and her assistants Beryl and Stanley, two other rather less serious couplings. It takes us from the moment Alec removes grit from Laura’s eye in the refreshment room at Milford Junction station, through their regular meetings at the station, in the cinema, the cafe & restaurant and in the flat of Alec’s colleague Stephen, to the crunch will-they-won’t-they denouement back at the station.

It flows beautifully from scene to scene, location to location, using film footage, songs with lyrics by Noel Coward and music by Coward and Stu Barker, and every trick in the inventive staging book. The cleverest thing about it is that the fun scenes don’t contaminate the love story, helped by the fact Isabel Pollen as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec play it straight throughout. Lucy Thackeray’s Myrtle, Dean Nolan’s Albert, Beverley Rudd’s Beryl and Jos Slovick’s Stanley are all an absolute joy to behold, and if that isn’t enough they play another seven roles between them.

It’s a respectful homage to the film, which doesn’t for one moment send it up. The fun scenes add bucket-loads of charm and humour, and the two interwoven parts add up to one hell of an entertaining show. Though its hard to remember how you felt ten years ago, first time around, if anything I felt it was even better this time. Whatever you think of her two years at Shakespeare’s Globe, we’ve got Emma Rice back to create theatrical magic like this. I for one can’t wait for her next show.

Yet another occasion where the critical reception lowered expectations only for them to be exceed on the night! I saw the world premiere of this Manuel Puig play in the tiny (old) Bush Theatre in 1985, with Mark Rylance and Simon Callow no less, but this production of a new version by Jose Rivera & Allan Baker opens it up, and seems to me to have even more power in its coruscating examination of the evils of tyrannical regimes.

Valentin is a political prisoner in a Buenos Aires jail in 1975. He has clearly been tortured. His cellmate Molina is a gay window-dresser, imprisoned for alleged indecency, who the authorities are hoping to use to get information on Valentin’s activities and associates. As a result, Molina is given supplies after each supposed visit by his mother or lawyer, in reality meetings with the authorities, so that they don’t have to eat the vile prison food. In order to kill time, Molina describes his favourite movies, a ritual which initially irritates Valentin, but one he learns to embrace and enjoy. The unlikely relationship between the chalk-and-cheese cellmates becomes affectionate, and more.

Designer Jon Bausor has used the concrete of the Menier space to create the prison, with cell doors along a corridor above and around around the cell of our subjects. When Molina is outlining the stories of his films, sound and projections onto the prison walls illustrate the fantasies. The design, and Laurie Sansom’s staging, are effective in conveying the claustrophobic intimacy of the cell, bringing a cinematic quality to the fantasies and underlining the power of the opressive state. Declan Bennett as Valentin and Samuel Barnett as Molina are both outstanding, playing very different characters with different motivations, but also making their intimacy and affection for one another believable.

This is way better than the critics will have you believe; go and make up your own mind!