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The Frogs

A musical based on a 2500-year-old Greek play featuring Shakespeare and G B Shaw as characters to be staged in a swimming pool. Well, you have to admire the ambition of Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim. This later version was meant for theatres and here we are getting the UK professional premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre more than twenty years after Broadway and more than forty years after the Yale original.

Sondheim appears to have only contributed choruses to the Yale show, perhaps as a favour for Shevelove as by now he’d had success with Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, but wrote extra songs for Nathan Lane’s revision. The Yale original is now probably just as famous for featuring actresses Meryl Streep & Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang in the cast.

It’s faithful to Aristophanes in that Dionysos, the god of drama, decides that there’s a desperate need for good dramatists and heads off to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw. He meets Shakespeare there too and decides to stage a contest to choose between them (Euripides and Aeschylus in the original). Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare beats the old windbag (Aeschylus wins in the original) and returns with Dionysos. A simple story, but with a timeless theme of the importance of the arts.

Lane’s version is a bit of a romp and, though far from Sondheim’s best score, there are some nice tunes and witty lyrics to propel the story, with cheeky contemporary references which delight. It’s well staged by Grace Wessels, with great use of Jermyn Street’s tiny space and nifty movement from Tim McArthur. The fun that the cast of just nine, let by Michael Matus as Dionysos and George Rae as his sidekick Xanthias, are clearly having is infectious and the musical standards under MD Tim Sutton were particularly high.

An unmissable opportunity for Sondheim fans. 

Ugly Lies the Bone

A play about the use of virtual reality to relieve severe pain in injured war veterans doesn’t sound particularly promising, but by including the personal stories of one veteran and her family and friends, and given a superb production by Indhu Rubasingham, it becomes rather captivating.

Jess is the protagonist in Lindsey Ferrintino’s play. She returns to her Florida home from Afghanistan with massive injuries, disfiguration and severe disability. The VR therapy she undertakes does reduce the pain significantly, by taking her to a calming mountainscape. She lives with her sister Kacie, a primary school teacher, in their mom’s house – she’s in some sort of home. Kacie has a new boyfriend Kelvin, a bit of a loser, courtesy of her ‘dream board’ it seems. Jess bumps into her ex Stevie and we learn that her third (voluntary) tour of duty causes their break-up. Though Jess’ world and her story is the core of the piece, the other three very different world’s revolve around it and connect with it, with a fourth added towards the end. Significantly, it’s set nearby and at the time of the final shuttle launch.

I loved Es Devlin’s design, with Luke Halls’ brilliant projections. When we’re in the real world, we can also see out to the environment around us. The virtual world is wrapped around the stage, revolving and evolving. Kate Fleetwood as Jess in on stage throughout and it’s a virtuoso performance, with the audience wincing as she feels her pain. Olivia Darnley captures the charming naivity of the almost childlike Kacie. I also very much liked the characterisations of Kelvin and Stevie by Kris Marshall and Ralf Little respectively.

I think the performances and production paper over the cracks in what seemed like an unfinished play, a touch slight to be on a major stage like the Lyttleton, but it’s an original piece, there was much to enjoy, it held me throughout and I was glad I caught it. 

Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson’s solo acoustic concert at Cadogan Hall was a real treat – one guitar, no time-wasting and a selection of songs from his entire career. He responded to an audience request for Fergus Lang, his song about Trump’s (mis)adventures in Scotland before he put himself forward as a candidate and updated it, though as he said it needs updating daily! There was excellent support from Emily Barker; one to watch.

This was the first time I’d attended the Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Festival Hall, the ultimate folk & roots supergroup with a core of players and guest singers, but it won’t be the last. The sound wasn’t great (sixteen players / singers in the mix) though it got better and from half-way through the first half it took off with lots of real highs.

Classical Music

Jonas Kaufmann‘s recital at the Barbican Hall was my first live experience of this much lauded tenor and he didn’t disappoint. I thought it was a well selected programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten sung in German, French & Italian. Gorgeous.

Opera

Royal Academy Opera’s Orpheus & Enefers at Hackney Empire was enormous fun, but also of the highest quality, with the stage and pit bursting with talent, brilliant design and a conductor who was visibly having the time of his life in the perfect venue. Welsh soprano Alys Roberts as Eurydice is a real find; a future star if ever I saw one.

Adriana Lecouvreur was the best thing I’ve seen at the Royal Opera for some time. It’s astonishing that this was only the 15th performance of this underrated Pucciniesque 115-year-old opera. The design was sumptuous and handsome and in period and the four leading roles were stunningly sung. American tenor Brian Jagde was new to me and he was sensational. Angela Georgiou was excellent, but I do wish she didn’t milk her bows so much!

My February visit to WNO in Cardiff was a Puccini sandwich with Vin Herbe filling. First up was a revival of their lovely La Boheme which was even better second time round, largely because of faultless casting. This was followed by Le Vin Herbe, the UK stage premiere of Swiss Frank Martin’s take on Tristan & Isolde. He wrote it to reclaim the folk tale from the Nazi hijacking of Wagner’s opera. It was sung storytelling with the chorus centre stage, an unusual piece but it captivated me. The second Puccini was their 39-year-old production of Madam Butterfly. The design might look a bit dated, but everything else was fresh, with beautiful singing and playing. A terrific trio.

Film

I loved 20th Century Women, a quirky, very un-Hollywood film set in a Bohemian home in California. Annette Benning and her screen son were superb.

Hidden Figures had the usual dose of American sentimentality, but it seems timely to be reminded that segregation in the US was still there just fifty years ago, and the film does it very well indeed.

Fences was the least cinematic film I’ve seen in ages, feeling much like watching one of those NT Live screenings, but the direction and performances were stunning and August Wilson’s story was as intense and gripping as it was on stage.

Moonlight was my 7th Oscar Best Picture nominee. A beautifully crafted film; a compelling watch. Of course, like the other five, I didn’t think for one minute that it would beat La La Land, so the following morning I was both surprised and delighted that it did.

Art

The Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain was thoroughly comprehensive and mostly gorgeous. He lost me a bit with the still life’s and early ventures into surrealism, but on the whole a real treat.

Sculptor Richard Wilson is a real favourite. His Annely Juda exhibition was taxing on the brain, but worth the trip, with more David Hockney prints of his iPad drawings downstairs a real bonus.

The Gavin Turk retrospective at his chum Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery had its moments but you end up concluding he’s more of a minor than major contemporary British artist. I thought the ‘homages’ to Warhol and Pollock were lazy art and the final room of rubbish, well rubbish.

The late Zaha Hadid‘s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a very pleasant surprise. A very beautiful selection of art meets architecture digital works which are technically accomplished but also very pleasing on the eye.

Anselm Kiefer‘s Walhalla exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey was vast, extraordinary and on the last weekend so popular you had to queue for a few minutes (I’ve never seen so many people in a private gallery). Mixed media and immersive art at its best; he shot up in my estimation.

The small Frank Brangwyn exhibition at the William Morris Gallery explored his Japanese influences and his relationship with a Japanese artist who made gorgeous woodcuts from some of his works. It really whetted my appetite for my visit to Brangwyn Hall in Swansea later in the same week.

Small too was the Australian Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery, with only 41 pictures by 4 artists, some of which I’d seen the year before last in Melbourne and Sydney, but the quality more than made up for the quantity. Gorgeous.

Othello

This is the fourth and last of my late February Shakespeare binge, in the lovely candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag.

It started well with full candlelight, period settings, in period dress (though with what seemed like joke ruffs and codpieces). My heart sank when all of the candles were extinguished for the first scene, each character illuminating himself with a single candle lamp. For the rest of the evening the candlepower changed frequently and I have to admit rather effectively. 

Ellen McDougal’s Big Idea (every director has to have one, it seems) is to change Cassio into a woman, Michelle Cassio to be precise. This made for some interesting sexual connotations. Having Othello & Desdemona’s bed on stage throughout was a bit distracting and took something away from the scenes elsewhere. I liked the music until it turned a bit too contemporary lyrically. The post-death ending was gimmicky and crass.

I admired Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello, though he didn’t die too well, and Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona too, but I thought Sam Spruell too flippant and nowhere near malevolent and machiavellian enough for Iago.

There was much to enjoy, but enough to irritate too, and it left me feeling it could have been a lot better.

Hamlet

You can spot a Robert Icke production within moments of it beginning. The use of live and recorded video, an atmospheric soundscape, contemporary songs placed appropriately, striking modern settings. It doesn’t always work for me, but on this occasion everything comes together to make this a brilliant Hamlet. Even the verse sounded like contemporary everyday speech.

We start and end with Danish news footage of the King and Hamlet’s funerals respectively. We’re with security staff watching the ghost in the castle on CCTV. Polonius is wired up when he goes to see Hamlet. When the players give us their play, the royal household join us in the audience where they are being filmed, so we can watch their reactions on screen as well as the play on stage. The same idea is used even more effectively for the fencing match. Ophelia’s burial scene is devastating. It unfolds like the Scandinavian thriller it is. Even the two intervals are perfectly positioned.

Andrew Scott’s soliloquies are restrained and understated, contrasting brilliantly with his rage and anger. It’s a stunning performance with an extraordinary emotional range, but he’s surrounded with a fine set of supporting performances too. Juliet Stevenson is superb as Gertrude, torn between her son and her new husband. Angus Wright is a brilliantly ice cold, defiant Claudius. Peter Wight is excellent as Polonius, with a fine Ophelia from Jessica Brown-Findlay and a passionate Laertes from Luke Thompson. This is a simply terrific cast.

At 3 hours 50 minutes it’s one of my longest Hamlets, but also one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. The third of my late February four Shakespeare play binge. Probably sold out but look out for a transfer of a cinema relay.

When you’ve seen a play tens of times, you invariably focus on the interpretation you are now watching. For the first half of this heavily cut ‘Dream’ I couldn’t get the questions ‘what are you getting at here?’ and ‘where are you going with this?’ out of my head. In fact, they weren’t fully answered by the end.

The Young Vic has acquired a giant mud pit with a mirror wall behind it, in which the whole play takes place. Perhaps it’s a comment on the state of our countryside 400 years on? Running at just two unbroken hours, director Joe Hill-Gibbins has dispensed with most of the fairies (or maybe they walked out in protest at their working environment). The story is intact until the end, where madness seems to have replaced marriages (some would say they are the same thing). Puck has gone part-time, and the only fairy doesn’t really have her heart in it, though she sings beautifully. The spells are lame, and Bottom’s relationship with Hippolyta appears to continue with Titania. 

The two things it got right, in my view, are the chaotic who-loves-who scene (despite the lame spells) and one of the funniest rude mechanicals plays I’ve ever seen, courtesy of some sublime comic acting by Geoff Aymer, Aaron Heffernan, Douggie McMeekin, Sam Cox and a completely unrecognisable Leo Bill as Bottom. 

I’m not a purist; I just didn’t get it. It veered too far from Shakespeare’s original for me and just wasn’t anywhere near magical enough.

The Wild Party

This is a musical based on a poem! Somewhat bizarrely, another musical based on the same poem opened in the same 2010 season in New York. This one, by Michael John LaChiusa, was on Broadway; the other, by Andrew Lippa, ran Off-Broadway. It crosses the Atlantic seven years on to open the newly rebranded The Other Palace, formerly St. James’ Theatre. Given it lasted less than two months over there, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so blown away, though more so by the terrific staging and sensational performances than the material..

It’s a slice of roaring twenties decadence. Queenie and Burrs are Vaudeville entertainers who form a stormy, abusive relationship. They throw the wild party of the title, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, resulting in all sorts of sexual activity and depravity. When the party’s over, there are hangovers, regrets and recriminations, before its tragic conclusion. It feels more like a song cycle than a musical (and there are almost forty of them!). Above all, it’s a showcase for the performers.

The story is subservient to the jazz-influenced score. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show with so many showstoppers and so many show-stealing opportunities, distributed evenly so that almost everyone gets their moment. The longer first half doesn’t let up and by the interval I was exhausted; I think I’d have liked more light and shade. This is delivered in the shorter and darker second half with a series of sensational solo turns, many of which bring the house down. 

Soutra Gilmour’s design has a ‘stairway to heaven’ and terrific costumes. Drew McOnie continues his successful transition from choreographer to director / choreographer with a staging that took my breath away and choreography that was positively thrilling. Theo Jamieson’s eight-piece band sounded terrific.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances as they were all stars. John Owen-Jones was in fine acting and vocal form as Burrs, miles away from his usual territory, and Frances Ruffelle was clearly relishing every moment as Queenie. US star Donna McKechnie was a treat in her cameo as Delores. We’re used to scene-stealing turns from Tiffany Graves and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and they deliver yet again. Sebastien Torkia & Steven Serlin make a superb double-act as the budding producers, particularly in their second half comic duet. Casting women as ambisexual brothers Oscar & Phil D’Armano was an inspired idea and Genesis Lynea & Gloria Obianyo are outstanding. Dex Lee and Ako Mitchell are superb as Jackie and Eddie respectively. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

This exceeded my expectations; it’s rare to see such faultless casting and such a stunning production. Head to Victoria while you have the chance.