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Boys Will Be Boys

This play with music about City traders has a cabaret bar setting. The trading firm is big and successful with a client list to die for. Astrid is one of their top traders. She’s forced to take client’s son Harrison but choses to take Priya, a hungry young British girl of Bangladeshi heritage. She pays a (female) prostitute to talk to her, but this becomes much more. 

The boys in the office are merciless with their banter and pranks, but things go too far at a lap dancing club where they consume way too much alcohol and cocaine and they set up Harrison and Priya. Back at work the firm’s top man Arthur has to resolve things. Priya decides to try and use the situation to her advantage, which won’t be good for Astrid, but it’s a boys world so can a girl really win?

There are songs and there’s dancing and playwright Melissa Bubnic doesn’t exactly hold back on the graphic descriptions and language. It wouldn’t win any awards for subtlety, but neither would the world of greed and excess it exposes and satirises. All of the roles, including the men, are played by women. I thought it was a clever idea and Amy Hodge’s production is audacious and they just about pull it off, though two unbroken hours in a stuffy space with uncomfortable seats made it challenging.

The play revolves around Astrid and Kirsty Bushell is outstanding in this role, with a rather good voice and cheeky audience engagement. Ellora Torchia brilliantly conveys the youthful ambition and ruthlessness of Priya, determined to succeed against the cultural and sexual odds. Helen Schlesinger is superb as big boss Arthur, the most masculine of the women in male roles. Chipo Chung and Emily Barber complete an excellent ensemble and Jennifer Whyte accompanies with brio on grand piano. Joanna Scotcher has ingeniously transformed Bush Hall.

Brash, bold and inventive. Much better than some of the reviews would have you believe.

Wot? No Fish!!

I went to this show because a friend wanted to go. I don’t really do monologues, and I have a limited tolerance of storytelling, but it proved to be both charming and enthralling, and you have to like a show which starts by distributing free food.

Danny Braverman discovered a box of memorabilia left by his uncle Ab, a shoemaker. When he opened it he found lots of wage packets given to Ab’s wife Celie containing housekeeping money, each with a biographical drawing or painting on it. Together they tell their story of life together over more than fifty years from the mid-20’s to the early 80’s. With the addition of some family photos and a few other bits of memorabilia, it provides a captivating story of one family and half a century in London.

He has such an engaging style, you’re drawn in and feel like you’re getting to know all of the family – their two sons, sister and favourite nephew Danny himself. You learn about their Jewish traditions, family idiosyncrasies and important events. There are some fascinating revelations and it all comes full circle in a very satisfying way. You can even stay on and view the wage packets up close.

An unexpected delight.

Unreachable

The preview buzz was a bit negative and the first reviews were too, so I wasn’t expecting to laugh so much. I thought Anthony Neilson’s new play, which he also directs, was rather good. 

Film director Maxim is a prima donna ostensibly in search of the right light for his new film. He did win the Palme d’Or for his last movie, after all. The film’s producer Anastasia just wants to get the film made on time, on budget, as does Lighting Cameraman Carl and leading lady Natasha. Extra funding comes with strings called Eva to keep an eye on things. Then the leading man is replaced with Ivan, nicknamed ‘the brute’. It’s an everyday story of film folk. I thought it was a hoot.

Matt Smith is very good as the film director and Amanda Drew the perfect calming influence as the producer, and Carl’s clandestine lover. I thought Tamara Lawrence, in what appears to be her second stage role, was terrific as the matter-of-fact ‘it’s only a job’ actress and Richard Pyros is excellent as the seen-it-all Lighting Cameraman. I loved Genevieve Barr as the deaf Eva who confounds expectations, then Jonjo O’Neill turns up and steals the show as the most actorly of actors, a performance that instantly propelled itself into my Best of list for 2016. It was so good that the rest of the cast (and him!) struggled not to corpse.

Designer Chloe Lamford appeared to have an easy job – just lighting screens and kit cases – until a coup de theatre at the end. There were too many short scenes that slowed it all down, but I forgave that for the laughs. 

Good to be having so much fun at the Royal Court again! 

Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

Queens of Syria

I left the Young Vic after this with a cocktail of feelings that included anger, sympathy, helplessness and guilt. I don’t go the theatre just for entertainment, I also go for learning, understanding and enlightenment and this was all three. It was a harrowing experience, but nowhere near as harrowing as the experiences of these women.

Thirteen Syrian women, all refugees, take Euripides play Trojan Women as their starting point. That play follows the women of Troy after the city has been sacked, their husbands killed and their families enslaved. You can see the parallel for a group of thirteen women who have lost or are parted from family members, living in a strange land, because of Syria’s civil war.

They tell us about their losses, how they miss their loved ones and their reception in the West. At one point they each talk about something they have brought with them, something they left behind and something they miss, which makes it all so personal. Speaking individually and as a chorus, occasionally in English but mostly in Arabic, with subtitles, we see the sadness in their eyes as well as hearing their tragic testimonies.

Like the concert of Syrian musicians at the Royal Festival Hall two weeks ago, this was a deeply moving experience. It seems to me it’s important to listen and good to provide a modicum of empathy. The theatre can do this and it should.

 

Motown the Musical

Motown wasn’t a huge part of the soundtrack of my youth; I was rather preoccupied with British groups like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Hollies and The Small Faces. I did listen to and enjoy much of it at the time, but I think I appreciated it more later, looking back. This ‘juke-box musical’ showcases an extraordinary back catalogue whilst telling the story of the man behind it all – Berry Gordy.

It’s framed by the 1983 25th anniversary concert, flashing back to a very young Gordy watching Joe Louis win the boxing heavyweight crown, then jumping forward to his initial song writing in Detroit and chronologically onwards from there back to the anniversary concert. I was surprised by how much I learnt about him and the label’s many stars, including the acrimonious dispute with the song writing team of Holland Dozier Holland and Gordy’s relationship with Diana Ross. I very much liked how they wove in social history such as the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King and segregation in the deep south, a chilling scene with on-stage police barking instructions to the audience.

It proceeds at such a pace you struggle to catch your breath, sometimes so fast that the narrative seemed rushed and you got part of a song when you’d have liked it all. The period was awash with brightly coloured clothes and furnishings and these are replicated in a design which is a riot of colour, perhaps seeming a bit tacky to today’s eye! The scene changes are swift and slick, the period choreography is spot on and the band sounds terrific. The music is the star, as it should be. 

There was a real party atmosphere in the theatre, perhaps a bit too noisy for me, with more weak-bladdered people coming and going than I’ve ever seen before! I didn’t think it was as good as those other three biographical juke-box musicals running in the West End – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon and Beautiful – but it was an interesting story with a soundtrack to die for.

Needles and Opium

This was one of the first Robert Lepage shows I ever saw, 24 years ago at the Cottesloe Theatre, but the combination of my poor memory and a significant re-working means this is like approaching a new show. Like all of Lepage’s work, it’s a flight of imagination, this time linking together Jean Cocteau, Miles Davies and Lepage himself.

French Canadian Robert is in Paris to record both the English and French narration for a documentary. He stays in his usual room in the Hotel La Louisiane, once occupied by famous names like Jean Paul Satre and Juliette Greco. In 1949, Miles Davis is in Paris where he meets Picasso and Satre and falls in love with Juliette Greco. He’s in the same hotel room, until he returns to New York City without Juliette and turns to heroin. In the same year, Jean Cocteau is returning to Paris after a visit to New York City, writing his Letter to the Americans. He’s addicted to opiates too. Miles Davies returns to Paris twelve years later to record an improvised soundtrack for a Louis Malle film. Cocteau, Davies and Robert are connected by having lost a lover.

We move between times and locations – hotel rooms, recording studios, night clubs and mid-air – in a half-cube that moves. Characters enter from anywhere, often whilst the space is moving. Projections create door and window frames. Beds, chairs and tables emerge. It takes a while to get into it’s gentle rhythm, but once you do it’s like entering a dream. All of the speech is in monologues, some to offstage characters on the phone or by intercom. It’s rather captivating, as you make the connections and piece it together for yourself. Classic Lepage, though maybe not CLASSIC Lepage.

Marc Labreche has the lions share of the action, playing Robert (an uncanny likeness) and Cocteau. Wellesley Robertson III is Miles Davies, a mute character. There is a brief appearance by someone as Juliette Greco in a bath!

Lepage always stimulates my imagination and makes me smile with his visual theatrical magic and this was no exception.

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