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Follies

It’s thirty years since I saw a large-scale production of this show – it’s first, and only, West End outing – though there were three others in quick succession between 2002 and 2010 – a semi-staged version at the Royal Festival Hall, a delightful fringe production at the Landor and another in Walthamstow during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations. Along with A Little Night Music, it’s never been my favourite Sondheim show, though it contains some of his best songs, but just five days after a stunning revival of that other show in Newbury, here we are at the National being blown away by Dominic Cooke’s sensational production, taking us back to the original Broadway version without interval. Now, where did I put my superlatives thesaurus……

It’s a reunion at the New York theatre where the Weismann Follies were between the wars. It’s about to be demolished and the girls of the 30’s and 40’s have been invited back one last time. Nostalgia gives way to regret for lost love and lost opportunities, as the main characters Buddy & Sally and Ben & Phyllis reminisce. There have been follies in their lives as well as Follies in their careers, and we learn how their relationships were formed and how they progressed. All four have the ‘ghosts’ of their former selves onstage, as do ten of the other stars from the past. Interwoven with their story, and ‘character songs’ as Sondheim calls them, we have routines and turns reenacted and a pastiche called Loveland within which all four leads sing of their individual follies.

Imelda Staunton follows her Mrs Lovett, Rose and Martha with another stupendous performance as Sally. It’s wonderful to see Philip Quast again, on fine form too as Ben, and Janine Dee is a terrific acid-tonged Phyllis, a particularly fine dancer as it turns out. Peter Forbes is less of a musicals regular, but he makes a great Buddy. Another piece of surprising but inspired casting is Di Botcher as Hattie, delivering Broadway Baby as if she was. Tracie Bennett takes I’m Still Here hostage with a particularly ballsy rendition, and the duet between opera singers Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer as older and younger Heidi is another stand-out moment in a show full of them. Dawn Hope’s Stella gamely leads the veterans in a thrilling tap dancing number with their former selves. The National is saved from prosecution by the musicals police by casting a Strallen, Zizzi, as Young Phyllis. This teally is a stunner of a cast.

Dominic Cooke isn’t known for musicals, but teamed with choreographer Bill Deamer, he’s done a great job, an elegant staging which is brash when it needs to be, at other times restrained and often very moving. Vicki Mortimer has created an atmospheric set and fantastic costumes. The unbroken 130 minutes was packed full of showstoppers and by the time we got to Loveland, I was overwhelmed and deeply moved. I think my previous, less enthusiastic reaction is down to timing. I was too young and too new to Sondheim and wasn’t really ready for this show – until now.

To the 37 performers and 21 musicians on stage, and the 200 production staff, and of course Messrs Sondheim & Goldman, it was worth every second of your time and effort. Unforgettable.

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Me & Robin Hood

For this show, Shon Dale-Jones has stripped it back to pure storytelling – no other characters, no props, no sound or lighting. It proves to be as captivating, but more unpredictable. That barometer of whether I’ll like something, the Standard’s Fiona Mountford, hated it, so it must be good – and it is.

He links the story of his childhood obsession with Robin Hood and his present day preoccupation with unfairness. The early story takes in under-11’s football, the relationship between his dad and grandma, 70’s politics and a bank robbery. The contemporary story takes in protest, arrest, therapy and his perilous financial state. It seems to move between the two randomly, but it’s clearly well made theatre. The big surprise is the genuine emotion, anger and passion on display, which sometimes makes you uncomfortable, whilst at the same time underlining its integrity.

This is the sixth of his shows I’ve seen. It’s just as charming, just as eccentric and as off-the-wall as the rest, but somehow more edgy. You never know how much of the story is true, but it doesn’t matter as it’s an effective combination of personal, ethical and political themes. He leaves you suggesting you donate (and top up) the difference between the actual ticket price and the normal ticket price (his profit) to Street Child United. He didn’t rob the rich, but persuaded them (us) to part with some dosh nonetheless.

A true original .

The Rest of August

Opera

My second visit to Grimeborn 2017 at the Arcola Theatre was for Lully’s 17th Century opera Armide. It was the first night, so it was a touch ragged at the edges, the production was a bit static (lots of posing) and it was hard to follow the story, but there was much to enjoy in the singing and playing.

Classical Music

Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, in its full three part version, got a terrific first performance at the Proms by the Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie. I love the way it builds, I love the fact that 27 of the 39 parts are choruses and I loved the fact that the soloists came out of the choir.

An English music Prom featuring the National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales proved to be an eclectic delight. Two pieces I’d never heard by favourite composers – Britten & Purcell – with the most delicate and uplifting rendition of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and the world premiere of Brian Elias’ Cello Concerto, with the composer in attendance. Brilliant.

A new innovation at the Proms this year was ‘Beyond the Score‘, where the first half was a profile of the composer and background to the work, with actors, visuals and musical extracts, followed by the complete symphony, in this case Dvorak’s 9th, From the New World. Though I thought the first half was a bit long, it was insightful and I very much enjoyed the experience and felt I heard more in the piece as a result. Mark Elder and the Halle were on fine form.

The 120-year-old Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra made their belated Proms debut with a programme of Bernstein, Copeland and Tchaikovsky. I thought they were more at home with the American repertoire that the Russian, which they proved conclusively with a stunning encore of Bernstein’s Candide Overture, better than I’ve ever heard it played before. The Proms audience made them very welcome indeed.

Contemporary Music

The late night  Stax Prom, celebrating 50 years of the label, exceeded expectations big-time. I wasn’t a huge fan in the day, but came to Stax later and visited the studios in Memphis in 2004. Two of the original house band and three of the original singers were supplemented by some of the best British soul voices, led by Sir Tom Jones. Jools Holland’s R&B Orchestra were great (though the sound could have been a bit better) and it was full of highlights, with a terrific atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall.

Film

I was introduced to the folk art of Maud Lewis when I went to the Art Gallery in Halifax Nova Scotia last September, so the bio-pic Maudie perhaps meant more to me as a result. True to her life story and beautifully filmed, I adored it, and Sally Hawkins was sensational as Maud.

Atomic Blonde was thrilling but too violent for me, with much of it improbably prolonged violence. Gold stars to the stunt men and women, though.

I was bored very early on in the over-hyped A Ghost Story, and presenting the ghosts as people covered in sheets with slits for eyes just seemed preposterous.

Thankfully, The Big Sick exceeded its hype and caught me by surprise as to how moving it was. Unlike the typical laddish Judd Apatow film; very grown up.

I’m very fond of independent British films, and God’s Own Country is one of the best in recent years, beautifully filmed and it really shows off Yorkshire!

Art

I’m not a fashion man, but you have to admire the classic design and extraordinary craftsmanship of Balenciaga at the V&A. Up the road at the Serpentine GalleryGrayson Perry’s exhibition was just the right size to give the pieces room to breathe and to avoid overwhelming the viewer, and the gallery managed the flow of punters brilliantly. The art, of course, was as fascinating as he always is.

A wonderful day of art started at St. James’s Piccadilly with the sculptures of Emily Young in the gardens. All heads, but different types and different stone, they were lovely. At the Royal Academy, I managed to get us into the Friends preview of Matisse in the Studio which was a little gem, showcasing pictures with the items from his studio in them. They have been loaned from so many different places it really is a once-in-a-lifetime show. Downstairs in the RA the one-room wonder that was Second Nature: The Art of Charles Tunnicliffe, some of the most gorgeous illustrations I’ve ever seen. After lunch a return to Picasso: Minotaurs & Matadors at the Gagosian which was well worth a second viewing, then off to Tate Modern for Giacometti, which was way more diverse and way more fascinating than I was expecting. Now that’s what I call an art feast!

+ / – Human was this year’s Roundhouse summer installation, seven round white drones which moved above your head, coming teasingly close but rarely close enough to touch, with at atmospheric soundtrack. Fascinating and fun.

The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A was interesting and well put together (apart from the fact it was a bit crowded and you sometimes lost the automated audio guide as you moved) but I gave up on them too soon, as they became somewhat overblown and pompous, so I’m not enough of a fan to rave about it.

9 to 5 – the musical

This 2009 musical adaptation of the 1980 film of the same name only survived four months on Broadway and has yet to make it to the West End, though a UK tour briefly visited the suburbs. So this London fringe debut is particularly welcome, to give us a chance to work out why.

Patricia Resnick, who co-wrote the film, provides the book and Dolly Parton, who played Judy in the film, adds music and lyrics. Set in 1975, it tells the story of the ladies in the office of Consolidated Industries, who’s CEO Franklin Hart is an obnoxious, corrupt, sexist misogynist. Life is hell under him, and after an accidental poisoning comes an intentional abduction whilst they gather enough evidence to get him his comeuppance and reform the workplace with family friendly policies at the same time.

I’m not sure why it didn’t do better on Broadway; it seems to me to be perfect musical comedy fare for a New York audience, though perhaps too American for the West End. Perhaps it was the feminist message?! There are some good country sounding songs and some funny lyrics. The book may be a bit lightweight, but it does the job. In this production, the design is functional, but a bit dull, and the choreography is a touch over-emphatic, trying a bit too hard, though I did like the country line-dancing references.

Though the performers were amplified, I missed some of the lyrics and dialogue because of the balance with the overloud band and the positioning of performers in the space. The three leads are all very good – Pippa Winslow as Violet, Amanda Coutts as Judy and Louise Olley as Doralee – and for once dodgy wigs seem appropriate. Leo Sene made a decent baddie as Hart, though he shouted when he should have sang. It’s a fine energetic and enthusiastic supporting cast.

Not a landmark musical, but good fun and Joseph Hodges’ production is well worth catching, while you can.

Over the last eleven years, dreamthinkspeak’s immersive, site-specific shows have taken me to an atmospheric registry building in Edinburgh, a former abattoir in London, a disused department store in Brighton, a former town hall in London and now to a vacant office building and car park as part of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture. (That’s not counting their brilliant take on Hamlet at Riverside Studios as part of the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012!). As ever I am in awe of the extraordinary efforts they go to in planning, designing and building their unique experiences.

For this one, we visit the offices of Kasang, a high-tech South Korean corporation. We’re told that they, and all other South Korean corporations, owe their success and progress to democratisation, which became a reality after the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, which started with students but gained momentum and overthrew the military government. With our tablets in hand, we experience the future of retailing, live gaming and virtual reality in parallel with flashback experiences of military rule, imprisonment and memorial of the events that led up to the freedom which has produced these perceived dividends. Moving through several floors of the building, we navigate a maze of corridors and rooms on a linear journey where I somehow finally lost all others and ended up alone in a vast space, deeply moved.

In addition to an extraordinary theatrical experience, I learnt something new about 20th Century Korean history; somewhat topical as it turns out. It was only the third day, so it will get tighter and slicker, but it’s a must for immersive and site specific junkies like me and may well prove to be the highlight of Hull’s year as UK City of Culture. On until 1st October, it’s a must.

A Little Night Music

This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

Salad Days

This Julian Slade / Dorothy Reynolds show shouldn’t really work in 2017. A frothy concoction from 1954 with twee music, a preposterous tale involving a piano with magical properties and visitors from Planet Z and characters that could be in a living museum. Yet it does. Somehow it makes you smile, you find yourself laughing with it rather than at it, and at times you giggle uncontrollably.

It begins with a graduation, as Jane & Timothy leave university, with a plan to meet in the park the following week. He’s under pressure to get a job and is despatched to meet various uncles, and she’s under pressure to find a husband, with a party arranged to forward this plan. A tramp pays them to look after his piano, which they discover makes people dance uncontrollably. They decide to stay with the piano, a mute companion and each other, though they are pursued by the police and the government, who want to stop all this fun. Add in spies (one an uncle), the attempted blackmail of a government minister (uncle) in an Egyptian-themed night club and the arrival of the spaceship from Planet Z (with uncle) and you have the ingredients for a cheesy but tongue-in-cheek and infectious romp.

Designer Catherine Morgan has fitted out the Union with fake turf and put the band onto a sort of bandstand, and Mike Lees has provided excellent costumes. Bryan Hodgson’s nifty staging is complimented by some very witty choreography by Joanne McShane. It’s an excellent cast, many of them recent Guildford graduates. Lowri Hamer and Laurie Denham are charming leads, with the former in fine voice, but the latter sometimes too quiet. James Gulliford and Francesca Pim are also a fine pairing as friends Nigel and Fiona. Tom Norman and Stephen Patrick have a cracking scene together as dancing PC and Inspector, the latter also shining as the night club manager. Maeve Byrne almost steals the show twice, as nightclub performer Asphynxia and a woman from outer space.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again, for the third time in twenty-one years, so I didn’t book at first, but I’m glad I changed my mind. Great fun.