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I often feel more positive about a show which has received indifferent reviews, though I never know if it’s the pressure of press night (never the best night to see a show in my experience), improvement as the run progresses or the difference between the view of people paid to be there against those who’ve paid to have a good time, and so it is again.

Sean Foley’s adaptation of the 1951 Ealing comedy, the screenplay of which got an Oscar nomination, moves it later in the fifties, but is otherwise faithful to the film; indeed, it feels very much a homage to the genre, still much loved, well certainly by me. One of the keys to their success was the celebration of the underdog, the outsider, the pioneer. In this case it’s the eccentric inventor whose invention threatens the livelihoods and wealth of others.

Cambridge chemistry graduate Sidney Stratton invents a stain resistant indestructible fabric which the mill owners at first embrace, until the potential impact on their wealth dawns on them. At the same time, the workers can see the threat to their jobs. The adaptation illustrates its timelessness and plausibility with clever references to oil. They try to pay off Sidney, and even use mill owner Birnley’s daughter Daphne’s allure to turn him. In the end, it’s the soundness of the science that seals the fate of the invention. There are other up-to-date references which bring a delightful cheekiness.

It’s played as broad comedy, and I thought it was great fun. Michael Taylor’s brilliant design moves us speedily from pub to factory lab. to mill-owner’s home to car ride to digs. Lizzi Gee’s choreography adds a sprightly feel. There’s skiffle music incorporated, with four members of the cast creating a live onstage band bringing a touch of knees-up to proceedings, playing original music by Charlie Fink. This is one of a number of features that reminds you of One Man, Two Guvnors. The cast’s enthusiasm is infectious, but its Stephen Mangan’s amiable charm and comic prowess that lifts it.

It’s a show to go to if you just want some fun, like those Mischief Theatre shows or One Man, Two Guvnors. It may not be up to the latter, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good night out. Find out for yourself.

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Brooklyn

Not to be confused with the film of the same name, this 2004 Broadway musical has a heart-warming pedigree; it was written by Barri McPherson after she reconnected and took in Mark Schoenfeld, an old friend she found sleeping rough. Unsurprisingly, its love story is framed and told by a group of homeless street musicians.

American musician Taylor falls in love with Faith when in Paris, but returns to the US, leaving behind half a tune and a pregnant lover. When Faith dies her daughter, named Brooklyn after her dad’s home, goes to an orphanage where she learns to sing. Years later, a hugely successful star, she uses a visit to NYC to try and find her father, armed with the half tune.

The street setting and pop-rock score contrasts with a somewhat schmaltzy fairytale story; in this way it reminded me of Rent. Justin Williams’ urban wasteland design serves it well. I like the songs, played superbly by Richard Baker’s band, but more vocal restraint and less volume would have served the lyrics better. They were sung well, but more as pop songs than musical theatre numbers there to tell the story. That said, the five performers are all excellent.

It was a bit overblown for me. I think the material would have benefitted from more subtlety, though there was enough to enjoy and admire to reward the trip to Greenwich.

The 1953 film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is much better known than this 1949 Jule Styne musical on which it was based. The Broadway show took 13 years to get to London and has only had one revival since then, at the Open Air Theatre 21 years ago, so a revival at the Union Theatre is to be welcomed.

I’ve lost track of how many Broadway shows are set on cruise liners or trains, but here’s another one. Follies dancers Lorelei Lee, from Little Rock Arkansas, and her best friend and chaperone Dorothy Shaw are heading for Paris, a trip funded by Lorelei’s betrothed, button king Gus Esmond Jr., who is planning to join them later. On the journey they meet Mrs Spofford, Philadelphia’s richest woman, who loves a drink, and her son Henry, zipper king Josephus Cage and British toffs Sir Francis and Lady Beekman. On the journey Lorelei flirts with Sir Francis and Henry and Dorothy with a group of Olympic athletes! Lorelei discovers Gus has gone to Little Rock with his dad to check out her background and worries they will uncover her secret. She gets Sir Francis to secretly fund the purchase of his wife’s tiara, makes a play for Josephus and fixes up Dorothy with Henry. When we get to Paris its all French stereotypes, dodgy accents and jokes at their expense. The Beekman’s arrive from London and Gus from Little Rock, later followed by his dad, and the story of buttons and zippers plays out in a night club, ending happily ever after, obviously, with two marriages.

It’s a big show that requires big resources, but the material doesn’t really deserve them. Jule Styne’s score comes to life occasionally (notably during its most famous number, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend) but is mostly undistinguished. Anita Loos & Joseph Fields’ book, based on Loos novel, and Leo Robin’s lyrics are both weak, lacking the wit and sparkle a musical comedy requires. Though I saw the Open Air Theatre’s production, it only became clear this time why it is rarely revived. This production is at its best in the chorus numbers and in Zak Nemorin’s well choreographed set pieces. With just piano and drums it’s a bit underpowered musically, and I wondered if a solo piano might have been better if a bigger band wasn’t possible. Justin Williams and Penn O’Gara’s designs give it a great period look, well lit by Hector Murray. Eighteen is a big cast for the Union, including a handful of very welcome professional stage debuts, and they work hard and enthusiastically. Somewhat ironically, it sparkled most when the bar became the Paris club, as the interval transformed and transferred to the theatre for the second act; elsewhere Sasha Regan’s production lacked oomph, though this may have been partly due to first night nerves.

Good to catch it again, though, despite my reservations about the material.

For some reason this early 80’s Athol Fugard play moved me more today than it did during the apartheid period in which it was written and is set. Perhaps it’s relief that, though there’s much wrong with the world today, that particular slice of inhumanity is over.

Fugard’s biographical play is set in a cafe in Port Elizabeth in 1950, the early days of apartheid. It’s owned by a white woman but run by her two black employees, Sam and Willie. The owner’s son Hally regularly visits after school and Sam & Willie have had more to do with his upbringing than his alcoholic father and about as much as his mother; Sam is very much a father figure. They have developed strong supportive relationships, regardless of apartheid. The men are rehearsing for a ballroom dancing competition which at first seems incongruous, but proves both in keeping and charming, when Hally comes home from school to a meal and news of his dad’s discharge from hospital, which sends him into a rage. He takes it out on the men, demanding to be called Master Harold and adopting typical apartheid behaviours of superiority, something he soon regrets.

Fugard hasn’t changed the names of the real people portrayed, including his own, Hally. The piece represents his apology to Sam and Willie; sadly the former died a matter of days before he could have seen it. It’s a gentle piece which shows the inhumanity of apartheid through these relationships more powerfully than shouting from the rooftops would, but its much more than that. The ending is poignant and deeply moving. Lucian Msamati gives yet another beautifully judged performance as Sam. Hammed Animashaun continues to impress with Willie, a very different role that shows and extends his range – from Bottom to Willie in a matter of months! It appears to be Anson Boon’s stage debut as Hally, and an impressive one it is too. Rajha Shakiry’s design anchors the piece in its place and period, beautifully lit by Paule Constable. It’s only the second play I’ve seen by director Roy Alexander Weise, and I’m already a fan.

It’s great to se it again after such a long time, particularly as it proves to be much more than a play of its time. Fugard is not only a key figure in the history of South Africa in the last half of the 20th Century, but a hugely important one in international theatre and this classic belongs on a world stage like the National.

Islander

Another one I missed in Edinburgh, this is billed as ‘a new musical’, which is deceptive. For me it’s a folk tale with music, highly original, with bucketloads of atmosphere and charm.

Eilidh is the last child on a remote Scottish island which has been depopulating rapidly and may soon become unpopulated entirely, depending on the outcome of a referendum. Eilidh’s mum left her with her gran, a bit of a prankster. We meet other characters who live on the island, including a heavily pregnant woman (on an island without a midwife!), but the significant event is Eilidh finding a beached whale, then meeting Arran, a stranger who seems to have a connection to the creature. There are allusions to the Scots mythical Finfolk and Skelkie.

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay play Eilidh and Arran respectively, plus all other roles. They sing unaccompanied, beautifully, using live electronic loops to provide extra vocals, foot & hand percussion, harmonies and sound effects. They conjure up a strange, mysterious world and the story captivates as it unfolds. I struggled a bit with the dialect at first, particularly as the speech is underlaid with music / sound, but I got into the rhythm of it. Staging it in Southwark Playhouse’s smaller space, The Little, provides the intimacy it needs.

Stewart Melton’s has written a folk tale, Finn Anderson has added music and Amy Draper has animated it. I thought it was lovely. Go see.

Peter Nichols, who sadly died last month, before this revival of his first major play opened, was for me one of the most underrated playwrights of the late 20th Century. His plays covered diverse subjects, his experiments with structure were highly original and he often added music to great effect. His relationships with producers were however problematic, though he did have three plays produced by the RSC and two by the NT, and this seems to have affected the fortunes of later plays and limited the number of revivals of earlier plays. This is only the second West End production of this play since its London premiere 52 years ago.

Nichols drew on his own experience of bringing up a disabled child. Bri and Sheila’s 15-year-old is severely handicapped, both physically and mentally. Bri uses humour to distract from and cope with his plight. Sheila is more matter-of-fact about it. On this particular day, shortly before Christmas, their ability to cope is pushed to, even beyond, the limit. When Bri returns from his day as a teacher, he is faced with caring for Josephine alone so that Sheila can have her break at the local AmDram, something Bri has encouraged. When Sheila returns she brings Freddie and Pam, fellow amateur thespians, who have yet to meet Joe. Bri’s mother also turns up, so we see three other reactions and perspectives on the situation.

In addition to performing in character, they all address the audience directly, and Bri and Sheila act out past visits to doctors. The play starts with the audience as Bri’s pupils, assembled at the end of the school day. It’s often uncomfortable, with black humour acting as a release for the audience, as it does for Bri as a character. It explores the complex web of emotions these parents have lived with for so long and discusses alternatives to their choice of a combination of Joe living at home with outside day care. These issues are covered objectively and non-judgementally, a vey rounded debate.

Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner are both outstanding as Bri and Sheila, with Storme Toolis, an actress of disability, bringing a deeply moving authenticity to the situation. There is fine support from Clarence Smith and Lucy Eaton as Freddie and Pam and a delightful cameo from Patricia Hodge as Bri’s mum. Peter Mcintosh’s house sits on the floor of Trafalgar Studio One, with flashback scenes and direct to audience dialogue in front, revolving to take us into the family living room. Director Simon Evans’ direction is sympathetic to the material, bringing out the timeless quality in it.

We’ve seen Privates on Parade, Passion Play and Lingua Franca relatively recently, but there are other Nichols’ plays desperately waiting for revival, with my top four being Poppy, The National Health, Forget-me-not Lane and Chez Nous. Lets hope this revival of his first spurs others on.

The Rest of September

Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!