A Man of Good Hope

I’ve seen and loved every Isango show that’s visited these shores over the last fifteen years and this is no exception. After three operas, adaptations of Shakespeare & Dickens and The Mysteries (three times!), this true story of a Somalian refugee is very different to what came before. Seeing it on the day when the Calais refugee camp was cleared gave it even greater resonance.

Asad loses his mother aged 8 during inter-tribal conflict in his home country. With no family to look after him, he heads for Kenya where he is ‘adopted’ by Yindy in a refugee camp, until she obtains papers to enter the US, leaving him alone once more. From here his route takes him to Ethiopia and on to South Africa, where his cousin takes him into his township convenience shop business.

In South Africa, the backlash against Somalians results in the death of his cousin and continual threats to Asad. He finds himself in a refugee camp once more, where the inter-tribal conflict amongst the Somalis takes us full circle. Asad defends a Somalian woman with a young child whom he subsequently marries and obtains papers for the three of them to enter the US.

It’s based on the book of the same title by Jonny Steinberg, who interviewed Asad intermittently over two years to obtain his story, scenes of which bookend the show. Asad says he won’t read the book as he doesn’t want to bring back memories of those he has lost. Isango’s trademark music adds much, played on wooden marimbas (fond memories of their extraordinary marimba overture to The Marriage of Figaro!), makeshift percussion, hands and feet and glorious rousing vocals.

Despite the tragic nature of Asad’s story, it is an uplifting, hopeful evening and its great to have them back.


Moby Dick: The Musical

I was one of those who thought this Hereward Kaye & Robert Longdon show was fun first time around, 25 years ago. It wasn’t really West End material though, and I did wonder why Cameron Mackintosh put it on. The critics, of course, didn’t like it then as they don’t now. It’s not for critics. It’s a camp anarchic romp for people who go to the theatre to have fun – and it’s got a very good pop score.

The premise is that we’re in a St Trinian’s-like school called St Godley who are putting on a musical based on Herman Melville’s novel, written by one of the schoolgirls and performed by the girls, head teacher, teacher, caretaker and a security guard(!). It takes place in the gym with a ladder, gym bars and gym horse just about the only props. There are loads of sight gags and verbal innuendo, in truth too much to take in. It works better on this scale than in did in the vast Piccadilly Theatre. 

The chief reason why this revival is a success is a hugely talented young cast of eight and two former X-Factor finalists – Anton Stephans and Brenda Edwards – who know how to belt out a tune and raise a laugh. Director / Choreographer Andrew Wright’s high energy dancing is made to look shambolic but is clearly well-drilled precision. There’s a fine band too under MD Lee Freeman. I was particularly impressed by the vocals of Rachel Anne Raynham and Laura Mansell and the dancing of Glen Facey.

I had as much fun as I did last time round.


The original NT production of Peter Shaffer’s most famous play was before my time in London, but I did see Peter Hall’s 1998 revival (with David Suchet and Michael Sheen), and a subsequent production at Wilton’s Music Hall ten years ago (with Matthew Kelly and Jonathan Broadbent). What makes this Michael Longhurst revival stand out for me is the additional impact of live music by 20 members of Southbank Sinfonia and 6 opera singers. 

Most scholars believe the central premise – that Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s talent led him to spike his career, and ultimately poison him – is untrue, and indeed Shaffer never suggested his play was anything other than fiction. It seems to have the Rimsky-Korsakov opera Mozart & Salieri as it’s origin, which the Arcola gave us an opportunity to see this year as part of Grimeborn. This is Shaffer’s rewrite, which begins and ends more than thirty years after Mozart’s death, with Saleiri riddled with guilt and regret. We them flash back to see how their respective careers unfold chronologically. Salieri does his utmost to place obstacles before Mozart whilst posing as his friend and advocate. He is particularly baffled and annoyed that his god has bestowed such talent on someone so uncouth. Two Counts at the court of Joseph II do some of Salieri’s bidding, such as insisting on the removal of the marriage dance from The Marriage of Figaro lest it break Joseph’s rule of no ballets in opera. Mozart becomes increasingly unbalanced as he battles against such restraint and dies writing his Requiem. 

The orchestra aren’t in a pit, but move with the action, as do the singers, playing as they stand and even whilst they move. The two narrators, the Venticelli, become part of them, carrying instruments when they aren’t narrating the story. It’s a brilliant idea, which adds so much to the shape and flow of the piece. Lucien Msamati is magnificent as Salieri, managing to convey his admiration and jealousy, the torture of and triumph over his victim and his guilt and ultimately remorse. I was less convinced by Adam Gillen’s Mozart, which I felt could have been a touch more restrained. The show was still in preview when I saw it and I felt the first half needed tightening, but the second half was terrific.

Great to see it once more on a big stage like the Olivier, with so much added by the integration of live music. 

As soon as this show started, you could sense the shock of the audience at the discordant music. To my ears, this was modern opera not musical theatre (and I’ve seen a lot of both). It took a long while to turn itself into something resembling a musical as we know it, perhaps too long, though the discordant start eventually seemed to make sense. It’s based on the 1923 play by Elmer Rice, a rather prolific American writer of some forty plays whose only work I knew was Street Scene, which Brecht and Weill turned into a musical / opera. This 2007 adaptation has music by Joshua Schmidt and a book by Schmidt and Jason Loewith. It’s original, rather audacious and full of surprises!

Mr Zero has worked as a number-cruncher for many years and is in a fairly loveless marriage with Mrs Zero. His boss announces that he is going to be replaced by an adding machine. This sends him off the rails and he murders his employer, resulting in arrest, trial, imprisonment and execution. This is where it turns, as he arrives in heaven (people sunbathing, reading and drinking at a swimming pool – in the Finborough!). He’s followed there by work colleague Daisy; they have been attracted to one another but it never came to anything, but she’s now committed suicide in the hope it will. From this point onwards it’s more of a musical, though far from an orthodox one.

I ended up admiring it, though never really forgave it for the challenge of the first part – even for someone seeped in modern opera. It’s a hugely impressive production by Josh Seymour with the audience on two sides of a raised platform in a clever design by Frankie Bradshaw, and a fine ensemble that includes Joseph Alessi as Mr Zero and Joanna Kirkland as Daisy. I’m glad I saw it, though I’m not sure I’d be queuing to see it again.

I think I now understand why we’ve only seen one of American playwright Susan-Lori Parks fifteen plays plays here before (not counting the 8th and 9th part of this series and counting the 365 play-a-day series as one!). I found it absolutely tedious.

Set in the early 1860’s during the American Civil War, the play explores the plight of slaves through lead character Hero, slave to a Confederate Colonel, continually referencing Homer’s The Odyssey (another of the slaves is called Homer). Part One is an overlong debate about whether Hero should accompany his master to the war with the promise of freedom if he does (sale or worse if he doesn’t). Despite the fact there are up to nine people on stage, it’s dramatically inert. There is some humour, and the music is great, but that wasn’t enough to ease the tedium for me.

The second part is better. Though there are only three on stage (plus the musician), the debate is more passionate and animated, but it’s still all words and little action. The Colonel has captured a Union soldier and imprisoned him in a makeshift wooden cage. When he’s absent, Hero is tempted by the soldier to change sides and release him, but it doesn’t work. The acting in this part, by Steve Toussaint as Hero, John Stahl as the Colonel and Tom Bateman’s soldier is outstanding, despite the material.

By now, I had been in my seat for almost 110 minutes and I’m afraid the prospect of a further hour drove me out of the door towards a large glass of merlot. It was doing nothing for me. I’m afraid I found it deadly dull, boring and more than a bit frustrating watching such a waste of acting talent. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be at Parts 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9.

I needn’t say more.

No Man’s Land

When I saw Patrick Stewart in Anthony & Cleopatra some time ago he had a throat infection but went on like a real pro. He was clearly suffering at Thursday’s performance of this play too, but he continued gallantly. It was inspirational to see two theatrical knights with a combined age of 153 still at the top of their game, and in Stewart’s case, determined not to disappoint his fans with an understudy.

I’m slowly reappraising Pinter, one of my problem playwrights, aided by recent revelatory productions by Jamie Lloyd and Matthew Warchus, and Sean Mathias now does for No Man’s Land what Lloyd did for The Hothouse and The Homecoming and Warchus did for The Caretaker. I don’t profess to understand it, but I do find it captivating, fascinating and funny.

Successful writer Hirst brings the less successful and somewhat scruffy Spooner home from the pub and they drink and chat (well, Spooner rather hogs the conversation). Hirst’s staff, Foster and Briggs, archetypal menacing Pinter characters, are introduced. In the second half, the following morning, Hirst does more of the talking as Spooner tries to get himself hired as his secretary. Foster and Briggs continue their intimidation and ambiguity.

It’s back in Wyndhams, the same theatre it transferred to (from the NT at the Old Vic) 41 years ago. Lancastrian McKellen plays Spooner, named after a Lancastrian cricketer, the role originally played by John Gielgud. Yorkshireman Stewart plays Hirst, named after a Yorkshire cricketer, first played by Ralph Richardson. They are both superb. Owen Teale and Damien Molony provide fine support as Briggs and Foster, also named after cricketers.

I thought the personal, first person programme bio’s were a nice touch and gave two of the actors the opportunity to make a point about access to training today by comparing their experience with the more difficult climate today.

It was a privilege to watch such a masterclass in acting, as I continue to warm to Pinter.



This Flaherty / Ahrens show, with a book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E L Doctorow, has never really found its place in the musical theatre repertoire in the UK. Maybe it’s a bit too American, and a bit too sentimental. One hundred years on from its setting and 20 years on from it’s creation, in a deeply divided post-Brexit Britain, during an equally divided trumped up American election, maybe it’s found its time. It certainly resonated more with me than my three previous productions.

It interweaves the stories if a white liberal New England family with Latvian Jewish immigrant Teteh and his daughter and black singer Coalhouse Walker Jnr, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son, which become entwined almost by accident. Teteh is trying to establish a new life in America, the black couple are trying to survive amidst the racism of the day and the New England family are largely sympathetic to both, standing out from the less welcoming crowd around them. There’s a bunch of historical characters like Henry Ford, J P Morgan, Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini to add social history to the personal stories. It’s got a great ragtime influenced score, with both choruses and solos shining through.

When Coalhouse is attacked and his girlfriend Sarah murdered by racist Irish fireman Clonkin (somewhat ironic given he too was an immigrant), it unleashes a wave of revenge and rebellion that contrasts with the more peaceful campaigning of black leader Booker T Washington. Our Latvian friend is busy inventing movies, the New England family’s ‘father’ is off exploring the world, ‘mother’ has virtually adopted Sarah’s son and her ‘younger brother’ goes to join Coalhouse’s campaign.

This excellent production by Thom Southerland seemed to me to place more emphasis on the racism and its responses, which gave the show more clarity and focus than I’ve seen before. The twenty-four performers really fill the stage and when they sing in unison it’s a glorious sound. I’m not sure if this team have used the actor-musician format before, but it works very well here, with MD Jordan Li-Smith at one of the two on-stage pianos. I really liked Tom Rogers & Toots Butcher’s barn like design and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are very good indeed.

Anita Louise-Combe is superb as ‘mother’; her second act song Back to Before brought the house down. Ako Mitchell is outstanding as the defiant Coalhouse and Nolan Frederick and Jonathan Stewart invest great passion into Booker T Washington and ‘younger brother’ respectively. Jennifer Saayeng plays Sarah with great dignity and feeling and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Seyi Omooba, who leads the rousing Act I finale. On the night I went ‘little boy’ was superbly played by Ethan Quinn.

The Landor made a great job of it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) but the Open Air Theatre, uncharacteristically, made a bit of a mess of it a year later (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/ragtime-2) This fine production is another jewel in the jewel-laden crown of the Tarento-Southerland team. Don’t miss.