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The Future

You can always rely on theatre company Little Bulb to give you something different and imaginative every time you see them – from Greek myth meets Django Reinhardt to a tale about whales to a spoof Victorian melodrama, always with music to the fore. My fourth LB show is about AI and the possible consequences, positive and negative.

Like Wail, about whales, it’s part lecture, part play, part concert. Three scientists / philosophers are joined by an animateur to guide you through a piece anchored in research by the people they represent, but you don’t really know that until the end. They present and dramatise a series of possible future scenarios that make you think about what AI might mean. The performance style is their usual combination of quirky, other worldly, cartoonish and the excellent music moves from A Capella to four-piece rock band.

I didn’t engage with it like their other shows, which I think is to do with structure. I struggled to get into it and it never really grabbed me in the same way the previous shows have, but I very much admired the stagecraft, musicianship and visual aesthetic of it. One of the problems Little Bulb have is following up their huge early hit Orpheus, on a much bigger scale in the Grand Hall at BAC. They are right not to try and match it, and Wail and Extravaganza Macabre were charming chamber pieces. This needs a bit more work to give it both more coherence and more engagement, but there’s much to enjoy as work-in-progress from a truly original and creative company.

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Composer Adam Guettel has had an erratic musical theatre career. He began with Floyd Collins and produced too more in quick succession, then five years later he came up with this Broadway success, but nothing for fourteen years (though he appears to have a few in the pipeline), the time its taken for the show to reach London, and in a new big scale short run rather than the more typical West End transfer.

It criss-crosses the musical theatre line between opera and musical, with a lush score that requires, and here gets, a mix of opera trained and theatre trained singers and a full 40-piece orchestra. The musical standards are sky high, with the amplification working for them rather than against. With the orchestra of Opera North behind and above the relatively small playing area, it’s surprisingly intimate (well, from the front of the stalls at least) given we’re in the Royal Festival Hall.

Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, which was made into a film just a couple of years later, it concerns a visit to Florence by wealthy American Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara. Margaret is reliving part of her past and Clara is being introduced to the joys of Italy. She falls in love with Fabrizio, which forces Margaret to confront the issue of her mental health; she’s not had full capacity since an accident in childhood. Fabrizio’s family are also phased by the age difference; Clara is some six years older than Fabrizio.

Craig Lucas’ book tells the story with clarity, leaving the score to deal with the emotional arc of the piece. They’ve chosen to leave the partial Italian dialogue and lyrics untranslated, with brings an authenticity without losing much understanding. Robert Jones’ very Italianate design adds to this. Daniel Evans delicate staging emphasises the period and plays up the romance. You rarely hear a full orchestra like this at a staged musical these days and the sound proves glorious.

The trump card though is the casting, with Renee Fleming incandescent as Margaret, singing beautifully. Alex Jennings is a quintessentially English gentleman, yet here he transforms himself into un perfetto gentiluomo Italiano, aided by natty suits, cool specs and silver hair! Rob Houchen is a real find as romantic lead Fabrizio, with a simply gorgeous voice. Dove Cameron, a Disney regular with zillions of Instagram followers (who I suspect is cast for bums on seats) was indisposed, which created an opportunity for understudy Molly Lynch to steal the show with a performance of great charm and vulnerability and a heavenly voice. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent.

They seem to be struggling to fill seats – the balcony was closed – largely because of the ridiculous pricing, I suspect, but I hope the reviews help fill them as it deserves to succeed, though the producers need to learn that lowering the prices can actually increase their income! Despite the cost, I was very pleased I went.

The resurgence of interest in Terence Rattigan’s plays seems to have focused more on the intense dramas, like The Deep Blue Sea. The Orange Tree Theatre now gives us the second of the rarer comedies, following French Without Tears four years ago. I thought that earlier play hadn’t aged well, but this one comes up sparkling and fresh.

It’s set in the London home of The Earl of Harpenden, a man without a family who’s about to marry the daughter of The Duke of Ayr & Stirling. The Earl likes a good time and befriends an American Lieutenant at one of his drinking sessions and invites him to stay. His partying friend Mabel, a bit of a vamp, also turns up. His fiancee Elizabeth visits with someone she’s befriended, a French Lieutenant. Both fall for Elizabeth, which sends the play along a sophisticated, hysterical, delightful path to its happy conclusion.

The Orange Tree is the perfect space to give the comedy intimacy and pace. All you need is a few bits of furniture, and in this case a superb ceiling feature, to create this bachelor apartment; well, Horton the butler as well, obviously. All seven performances in Paul Miller’s pitch perfect production shine. Notwithstanding the period it’s still set in, this seventy-six-year-old play feels so fresh. What must have been a tonic in war-time London, proves to be a tonic still.

The Wife

Samual Adamson’s examination of sexuality and marriage from the late 50’s to the present day uses Ibsen’s play The Dolls House, and its main character Nora, as it’s starting point and it’s both clever and intelligent.

We start in 1959, backstage after a performance of the play when Suzannah, the actress playing Nora, is visited by an acquaintance and her boorish husband Robert. It soon becomes clear that Daisy and Suzannah are much more than acquaintances, but also that Daisy is pregnant. In subsequent scenes we meet a descendent of Daisy & Robert at two points in their life, thirty and sixty years later, with encounters with different Nora’s / Suzannah’s at each point. There’s a nod to the future, but its not particularly well developed.

In effect, we’re moving from marriage as cover story to partial same sex legality (not age or marriage) to the equality we have today. To say more would be to spoil it, but I loved its cleverness and humour. There are great performances from all six actors, who play fourteen roles between them. Richard Kent has kept the design simple to facilitate speedy scene changes within acts and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction seems totally in tune with the material.

The clever structure and humour could have swamped the serious historical examination, but it doesn’t. It added much to making it such a satisfying evening.

This is the musical theatre debut from SpitLip – David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoe Roberts – a bonkers but brilliant show set during World War II, which tells the story of a secret mission that changed the course of that war. Hugely inventive, eclectic musical styles, superbly staged, a terrific ensemble and it’s a hoot.

The plot revolves around misinformation, leaking fake British plans that convince the Nazi’s to change theirs, but in the most convoluted way that involves a submarine, a dead body and a visit to Spain, with a possible double-agent and a film script to add another layer. The music, and there’s a lot of it, is a selection of different contemporary styles with an onstage trio of keyboards, bass and drums under MD Felix Hagan. Helen Coyson’s design, Sherry Coenen’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound add up to outstanding fringe production values.

The five performers – the three writers plus Jak Malone & Rory Furey-King – use a very broad comic-book performance style which is extremely funny and suits the tongue-in-cheek, gently satirical material. They sing superbly too; some of the numbers, notably the Nazi chorus that opens the second half, choreographed really well. It could do with losing ten or fifteen minutes, but otherwise it zips along and sweeps you up with its manic charm, right up to it’s well-deserved standing ovation.

Another great new small-scale British musical; our cups currently runneth over.

The Rest of May

Contemporary Music

It was a breath of fresh air to see The Unthanks (well, three of them) stripped back to unaccompanied vocals. The purity of their singing in the gorgeous acoustic of Union Chapel made for a surprisingly varied and joyful evening. There was good support from Lau’s Aiden O’Rourke & Kit Downes with their fiddle & harmonium instrumentals inspired by a book of short stories.

Classical Music

It takes a big imagination to see a 425-year-old accapella vocal cycle as suitable for staging, but Peter Sellers has one, and I have to say it worked. Los Angeles Master Chorale, dressed in shades of grey, moving around the stage as they sang, made Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro at Barbican Hall so much more emotional and captivating, even for a non-believer!

The month ended on a real high with Il Pomo d’Oro‘s concert performance of Handel’s Agrippina at the Barbican with a cast to die for led by Joyce DiDonato. They brought out all the humour and Joyce in the titular role was every inch the manipulative Empress. For once the attempts at characterisation worked brilliantly. In a lifetime of Handel opera-going, this was a highlight.

Dance

There was some stunning visual imagery in Yang Liping – Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells, but it was more posing than dancing, very episodic and difficult if not impossible to follow the narrative. The best of Stravinsky’s suite was left out (the last movement) and the false endings became tiresome, as did the milking of bows!

Film

I was worried the combination of biography and fantasy wouldn’t work, but Rocketman proved me wrong. Seven or eight years ago I was impressed by Taron Egerton in the Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year competition. He didn’t win, but he got my vote, and here he is as Elton John. Definitely a film I’d recommend.

Art

The Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum is a fascinating collection of scripts, props, costumes, storyboards, cameras, posters and film clips covering his long but not particularly prolific career. Attention to detail and quality were clearly more important than quantity of output. A genius who made just ten major films but left an enduring legacy.

London is full of blockbusters at the moment and this month, as well as Kubrick, it was Leonardo da Vinci: A life in Drawings at the Queen’s Gallery. There were a lot of them – portraits, anatomical subjects, buildings, plants, some sketches and some maps; little fully finished, but they added up to paint a picture of an extraordinarily talented man.

Swinging London: A Style Revolution at the Fashion Museum trod similar ground to Mary Quant at the V&A but a bit broader, and if anything I preferred it. The Chelsea Set, let by Terence Conran and Mary Quant, certainly had an impact, but I was surprised to see painter John Minton, sculptor Edward Paolozzi and Bernard & Laura Ashley amongst them. All very nostalgic.

Two small exhibitions of modern abstract art at White Cube Bermondsey proved colourful and rather cheery, though you wouldn’t say they were that original. Sarah Morris: Machines do not make us into Machines was very geometric and loud whilst Zhou Li’s Original State of Mind was softer, more organic and impressionistic. I found them both uplifting, though.

Even though this isn’t a classic Tennessee Williams work, it’s the third major London revival in thirty years – Peter Hall’s with Vanessa Redgrave in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s with Helen Mirren nineteen years ago, and now Tamara Harvey directing Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich in a co-production by the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Clwyd. It’s inspired by the Orpheus myth, but it’s an uneven play, with a dull first half and an action-packed second. It’s also not easy for modern audiences to swallow the racism, however authentic it is of the period. The production, though, is first class.

Lady is a southern belle of Sicilian descent. Her father, a street performer back home, came to the US and became a bootlegger in prohibition times. He was murdered when he crossed a line that was unacceptable to the white locals. After a relationship with David Cutere, who left her, Lady ends up marrying store owner Jabe Torrence. As the play begins, he returns from major surgery at the hospital in Memphis, but the prognosis isn’t good.

In comes drifter Valentine Xavier looking for work, and Lady employs him, the sexual chemistry obvious from the outset. The relationship develops whilst Jabe stays upstairs with his nurse and sisters, the locals gossip and David’s sister Carol, a persona non grata in this community, seeks to lure Val for herself. Other characters, including Jabe’s friends Pee Wee and Dog, Sheriff Talbott and his wife Vee and local gossips Beulah and Dolly, come and go and another, Uncle Pleasant, becomes a sort of narrator, who occasionally gives us TW’s stage directions.

The problem with the play is that the 75 minute first half is virtually all scene-setting, and plays out so slowly that it risks losing the audience. The second half is a complete contrast as Lady discovers more about her father’s murder, makes a confession of her own and Val, who just about every woman in the neighbourhood is now smitten by, is driven out of town by their men, as the play is propelled to its tragic conclusion.

With the audience on three sides and just the back of the shopfront as a backdrop and a few tables and chairs for props, the Menier space seems vast, and is used very well in this staging. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, led by terrific performances from Hattie Morahan as Lady and Seth Numrich as Val, with great chemistry between them. Jemima Rooper is superb as Carol and Carol Royle makes much of the strange character of god-fearing Vee. The supporting roles are all well cast; I was particularly impressed by Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson as gossips Beulah & Dolly.

Despite the play’s problems, the fine production and exceptional performances make it worth seeing again.