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It’s taken me over a year to catch up with this, deterred by mixed reviews and West End prices, propelled now by the return of co-creator Paul Whitehouse to the cast and a decent midweek deal. It’s extraordinarily faithful to the TV sitcom, a true homage which offers no surprises, but the familiarity, nostalgia and excellent execution made it a real fun night out.

It’s obviously an amalgam of episodes / series during which Del Boy meets Raquel, Rodney marries Cassandra and Boycie and Marlene’s attempts to conceive succeed. All of the other characters, including deadpan Trigger, are there in Peckham as we move between the flat, the pub, the cafe and the market. There’s a lot of attention to detail in recreating things like mannerisms and voices, and they’ve even created the iconic visual gags involving a bar that’s not there and a chandelier. Oh, and the yellow Reliant Robin comes onstage a couple of times. The music, mostly by Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan (creator John Sullivan’s son) and Chas & Dave, and the original John Sullivan theme tune recurring, suits the show, though I found the addition of songs by Simply Red and Bill Withers, and part of Carmina Burana as a curtain-raiser, a bit baffling. When Whitehouse as Grandad morphed into Uncle Albert, continuity went right out of the window.

It’s well designed by Liz Ascroft, with the pub building and block of flats as backdrop to a playing area that transforms between locations. The Theatre Royal is a bit plush for Peckham, but director Caroline Jay Ranger’s delivers a surprisingly intimate staging. Tom Bennett is great as Del Boy, the archetypal lovable rogue that the show revolves around, excellently partnered by Ryan Hutton as younger brother Rodney; there was more warmth to the relationship as surrogate father / son, I thought. There’s excellent support from Ashleigh Grey as Raquel, Jeff Nicholson as Boycie, Samantha Seager as Marlene and the understudy playing Cassandra, who was very good. Paul Whitehouse was delightful as Grandad, more playful when he surprised us as Uncle Albert. The ensemble numbers were particularly well staged and sung.

I’m really glad I went. It was nice to be in a very un-West End audience for what is populist fare, but quality populist fare, and I enjoyed the warm nostalgia of sharing memories of one of British TV’s greatest sitcoms. Gavin & Stacey – the Musical anyone?

I can’t think of a better way of marking International Women’s Day than visiting a women’s prison to see sixteen of their residents perform in Hairspray, with musical theatre professionals as creatives, musicians and in some of the lead roes. This is the sixth time I’ve witnessed Pimlico Opera’s therapeutic, rehabilitative work, in five different prisons, and each time the standard gets higher. I’ve had a soft spot for this particular show since I saw the original production in preview on Broadway eighteen years ago. I saw it in the West End three times and a new production in Leicester six years ago, but I can honestly say none were as uplifting as Sunday in HMP Bronzefield.

As the prison director reminded us, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is equality, so what better than a show about a feisty teenage girl fighting fat shaming, racism and segregation. Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with the Corney Collins Show, a TV dance programme featuring local teenagers, and infatuated with its lead dancer Link Larkin. When a vacancy arises for the show ensemble, she’s turned down because of her size. She meets up with Seaweed J Stubbs, a black boy whose mom runs a record shop, and becomes friends with his. Black kids aren’t allowed on the show, but are given an occasional ‘negro day’. Tracy is determined to get on the show, to get it integrated, and to get Link, a journey that involves protest and prison.

It’s such a feel-good show, its tongue firmly in its cheek, often hilarious, with great moral messages and so many catchy tunes and clever lyrics and lines, you hardly stop grinning. Nikki Woollaston’s terrific production has bags of energy and a superb sense of fun; her nifty choreography is a particular high. Alex Parker is as fine an MD as you can get and his 12-piece band sounds fantastic. Alex Doige-Green’s set makes great use of the space, on two levels, and Bek Palmer’s costumes are a period delight. Chloe Hart played Tracy in the West End for the last part of its run, before she’d even graduated, and she shines again here with particularly gorgeous vocals. Christopher Howell as mom Edna and Darren Bennett as dad Wilbur are pitch perfect and make a superb double-act. Amongst the rest of the professionals, Andre Fabien Francis and Sam Murphy impress as Seaweed and Corney respectively.

There is much talent amongst the sixteen resident performers. Dhonna Campbell-Grant brought the house down with I Know Where I’ve Been; if she’d been on The Voice, all four chairs would have turned! Mandy Webb played baddie Velma Van Tussle with great confidence, Christine Callaghan was very assured and appropriately bitchy as her daughter Amber and Tiffany Smart was so good as Tracy’s friend Penny I thought she was one of the pros. These are big roles and these women rose to the occasion with great aplomb. If this were a fully professional show, we’d have still been standing and cheering; by any standards, a joyous and uplifting evening.

On until Sunday 15th March. Catch it if you can.

Pass Over

This highly original play by American Antoinette Nwandu packs one hell of a punch and gets a thrilling production by Indhu Rubasingham, with a trio of fine performances.

Moses and Kitch live on the streets of an American city. They are bound together by games and rituals that keep them occupied, and sane. They often reference slavery and sometimes god. They have a private language, more personal than street talk, constantly referring to each other using the ‘n’ word. It’s sometimes impenetrable and often uncomfortable, but adds a visceral quality. They live in fear of the police.

They first encounter a naive young man on the way to see his mom, with a picnic, who seems to have lost his way. Though initially reluctant, they take up his offer to eat and drink, suspicious but grateful. Moses is more cautious than Kitch in what is a rather surreal scene. Soon after he has left, a cop pays a call for some routine intimidation; they are immediately on edge as they know full well how this could play out. They descend into more existential thoughts before a second visit from the cop, and another from the young man.

At times it appears to be repeating itself and there is an other-wordiness about the scene with the young man, but I think the comparisons with Waiting for Godot are a bit overdone. It’s very effective in addressing ‘black lives matter’ and drawing parallels with slavery, without being heavy-handed or preachy. Designer Robert Jones has brilliantly transformed the Kiln into an in-the-round space, with just a sidewalk, lamp and some signs, superbly lit by Oliver Fenwick. The production has extraordinary energy and edginess.

Paapa Essiedu has wowed me three times before, not least his Hamlet, and here he extends his range again as Moses. Gershwyn Eustache Jnr has also impressed me in the past and again he excels here as Kitch. These are stunning individual performances, but they are superb sparring with one another, verbally and physically, too. There’s great support from Alexander Eliot in two very different roles, the doubling up making a point in itself.

Don’t miss!

Frantic Assembly have been a hugely influential theatre company for the last twenty-five years. Their groundbreaking style integrates movement and music with narrative. Over some thirty shows, most of which I’ve seen, they have grown and evolved, and this anniversary show sees them on fine form, with guest writer Sally Abbott and guest co-director Kathy Burke joining AD Scott Graham.

It explores themes of loneliness and loss through six characters. Josie has lost her dad and her dog and her son Manny has gone to university. Clare has lost her man and is fast losing her mind and maybe her job. Ange works in a hospice, estranged from her sister and haunted by memories of abuse as a child. Bex, wife and mother of two young boys, is dying of cancer, and is a patient there. Graham, a black cab driver, is newly widowed. Connections between them emerge as the story unfolds. Despite the themes of abuse, mental health, bereavement and loneliness, there is much humour.

It’s beautifully written, with strong character development and a compelling narrative drive. I felt too many scenes were monologues, particularly in the first half, which made it a touch static at times, and the movement of translucent rectangular boxes between scenes was a bit overdone. That said, it held you in its storytelling grip throughout, and all six performers shine – Chizzy Akudolu, Caleb Roberts, Polly Frame, Charlotte Bate, Simone Saunders and Andrew Turner.

Some of their work is, well, frantic, but some is gently moving, as is this. May they continue to be the theatrical powerhouse they have become for many more years. Happy Anniversary!

The Visit

Though it’s still set in the 50’s, but relocated to the US, the moral message of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play seem very now. Though it’s a long evening, I really enjoyed it.

The North Eastern US town of Slurry is down on its luck. Factories have closed, jobs are hard to get and no-one has money to spend, but the world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, is about to return home, and expectations are high. She has a track record of philanthropy, traveling the world scattering money as she goes. She also seems to collects husbands along the way. Trains no longer stop at Slurry, but she makes sure hers does.

It isn’t long before she offers an extraordinary sum – one billion dollars – to the town and its people, but there are conditions. People start spending, running up credit with willing retailers, and the town makes expensive plans. There’s a sense of anticipation, even though the price would be very high indeed, particularly for her old flame Alfred. Finally a meeting is called where the residents will vote on whether to accept the money, and therefore accept and implement her demands. Claire looks on, in control, vengeance on her mind.

Director Jeremy Herrin has resources only the NT could provide – a cast of twenty-eight, five musicians, a choir, children and supernumeraries. Designer Vicki Mortimer conjures up a railway station, town hall, shops, homes and a forest, with excellent period costumes by Moritz Junge and superb lighting from Paule Constable. Paul Englishby’s jazz infused score adds much to the period feel and atmosphere.

Hugo Weaving is superb as Alfred, with a huge physical presence and a pitch perfect vocal tone and accent. Lesley Manville plays Claire brilliantly, ice cool, determined, vindictive and unforgiving. They are surrounded by a terrific ensemble that includes luxury casting like Nicholas Woodeson as the Mayor, Sara Kestelman as the school principal and Joseph Mydell as the church minister.

They seem to have cut it considerably during previews, but it’s still too long at 3.5 hours, albeit with two intervals. That said, it’s a wonderful production which in my view has to be seen. The story of a town that sells its soul to the devil in a Faustian pact with the richest woman in the world proves timeless. As it is, was and forever will be, there’s nothing people won’t do for money.

Opera

Porgy & Bess was probably my best Met Live experience. It was the same production as that at ENO last year, but with a largely black American cast telling a quintessentially American story, it seemed to be where it should be. The orchestra and chorus were stunning and every soloist shone.

My visit to WNO at WMC in Cardiff was for only one opera this time, but it was a rare outing for Verdi’s underrated Les vepres siciliennes where the orchestra and chorus were brilliant yet again, a handful of international soloists from Korea, Armenia, Italy and Poland were introduced to us and David Pountney’s production fused period costumes with timeless settings. Well worth the trip.

Little did I know that Met Live was about to reach another level with a simply stunning production of Handel’s Agrippina. The acting of Joyce DiDonato, Iestyn Davies, Kate Lindsey, Brenda Rae and Matthew Rose matched their superb singing, rare in opera in my experience. David McVicar’s staging and John Macfarlane’s design were brilliant. This was a highlight in a lifetime of opera-going, which a third of a million people could see at a reasonable price, unlike the few thousand who paid ten times the price to see it in Covent Garden last year.

Classical Music

Crouch End Festival Chorus was hugely ambitious and very enterprising with their concert of Glass, Stravinsky and Ives at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These were difficult works and you could see the concentration on their faces, and those in the London Orchestra da Camera, but they pulled it off with aplomb. A fascinating afternoon.

The LSO’s pairing of Prokofiev & Shostakovich works at the Barbican proved to be fascinating, with the orchestra’s leader given a moment to shine as a soloist in the former’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the whole orchestra played superbly under Gianandrea Noseda in symphonies from both composers and a prelude from that other Russian, Mussorgsky.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix series at the Barbican reached its pinnacle with a thrilling Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Simon Rattle. The second movement never sounded better, the LSC were on fine form and there were four well matched soloists, but above all it was the orchestra who rose to the occasion, as they always seem to do under Rattle.

Contemporary music

The Musical Box are a Quebecois Genesis tribute band who have gone global, to the point where they get to perform at the London Palladium. I’m not really a tribute band man, but there was a buzz about this lot which I couldn’t resist, though by the interval I was wishing I had. It was post-Gabriel Genesis, instrumentally strong but vocally relatively weak and the visuals were patchy. About fifteen minutes into the second half though it took off on a wave of nostalgia. Now we were in MY Genesis period. It culminated with a spectacular encore of Supper’s Ready from Foxtrot. All 25 minutes of it. I went home happy.

Film

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a quirky film but I rather enjoyed its other-worldliness and its message. Why Tom Hanks performance is ‘supporting’ is beyond me; the film revolves around his character.

The Gentlemen was another film I put off until the last minute unconvinced it was for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the sort of violence I keep saying I don’t like. It’s very cleverly plotted and benefits from great performances against type by both Hugh Grant and Michelle Dockery.

I’m also one who avoids foreign language films because, as a slow reader who absorbs every word, I find that by reading subtitles I’m missing the visual, but I made an exception for Korean film Parasite after all the awards buzz and again I was right to do so. Highly original and completely enthralling.

Greed is a coruscating, thinly veiled, well deserved satirical swipe at the odious Philip Green, linking the exploitation of workers in the developing world with the fashion industry. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and it has an extraordinary cast of talented British actors.

Art

Picasso and Paper at the Royal Academy is a huge and astonishing exhibition. He is so prolific and, though I’d don’t like everything (cubism in particular), it’s littered with gems. I was overwhelmed by it all.

British Baroque: Power & Illusion, late Stuart paintings from 1660-1714, at Tate Britain wasn’t really my thing, more of academic than aesthetic interest. Also there, I caught Steve McQueen’s Year 3: a Portrait of London which was not really about looking at the 3128 classic pose class photos of 76,000 7-8-year-olds in 1504 schools, it was about engagement and citizenship and I admired it for that. The latest Spotlight one-artist room was devoted to British Zanzibar artist Lubaina Himid whose work of women with women was very striking.

Whilst in Cardiff, I visited the National Museum of Wales where there were three photographic exhibitions, the highlight of which was Martin Marr in Wales – loud, brash and colourful documentary photos. I’d seen and admired a small selection of August Sander’s portraits of 20th century Germans in a private gallery in London, but the bigger selection here didn’t really add much; it became a bit monotonous. Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Industrial Visions was what it said on the can – lots of photos of mines, water towers, factories etc. but it did contain one of the mine where my father worked all of his life, and others in South Wales, contrasting with ones in Germany and the US.

The combined running time of all the films and videos in the Steve McQueen retrospective at Tate Modern is an hour more than their opening time. Add in waiting and queuing time and you need to allow at least 1.5 days! I ‘sampled’ it, which was enough for me I’m afraid.

Blitz!

I’ve waited almost thirty years to see this Lionel Bart show again. The last time it was in London it was staged by the National Youth Theatre in the West End with a sensational performance from Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) in the leading role. It’s the third of only five British musicals Bart wrote, coming immediately after Oliver! which was still running in the West End at the time. It now seems at home in a 70-seat theatre under the railway arches near Waterloo.

When it was first produced in 1962, the Second World War was far enough, but near enough for the spirit of the blitz to provide a nostalgic setting for the story of two families, the Blitztein’s and the Locke’s, whose lives become intertwined. Mrs Blitztein and Mr Locke are both market traders in Petticoat Lane, but they can’t stand each other, Locke being somewhat anti-semitic. Despite this, Locke’s son George and Blitztein’s daughter Carol are in love, a love that survives George’s war injuries and Carol’s blindness by bombing. Their parents’ melt and marry and there’s even a frisson between the grandparents. Three generations, two cultures, love conquers all. I love the populism of Bart’s work, and this is as packed full of great tunes as his other shows are.

Phil Wilmott’s staging turns the small space to an advantage, given that most of the show is set in the underground shelters. The choruses are fantastic and there are a whole load of excellent performances, with Jessica Martin terrific as Mrs Blitztein, Michael Martin as Locke and Caitlin Anderson, Conner Carson and Robbie McArtney as Carol, George & Harry respectively are great, with a lovely cameo from James Horne as grandad Locke.

Lovely to see it again.

A Number

This is the fourth Caryl Churchill play I’ve seen in the last twelve months – three revivals (two of which I’d seen before) and one new play(s). I first saw this seventeen years ago at the Royal Court with Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig. Cloning was a hot topic at the time. Eight years later there was a certain frisson seeing a real father and son – Timothy & Sam West – playing it at the Menier, something that was tried again at the Young Vic in 2015 with John & Rex Shrapnel. So this is my third exposure and I’m still confused. That’s Caryl Churchill for you.

It’s set in the home of Salter, where he is visited by someone who turns out to be a clone of his son, who was sent to some sort of home by his father when he was struggling after the suicide of his wife. Salter realises the doctors have created more than one clone and is preoccupied with suing them. His actual son then visits, furious with his father about the cloning. Salter now says he was just trying to have a second chance to bring up a son properly. The first clone returns, knowing the truth, now hating Salter. After another visit from his real son, now very troubled, Salter invites another of the clones, Michael, who proves to be very normal and unfazed by it all.

Polly Findlay’s excellent staging plays out in five scenes over sixty minutes, superbly performed by Colin Morgan as all of the boys and Roger Allam as Salter. In Lizzie Clachan’s clever set we’re in the same room, but from a different perspective in each scene, miraculously transforming in the darkness between them. It’s a much more realistic setting than previous productions, and Morgan is much better at creating different personalities than his predecessors. The nature versus nurture debate is interesting, but I was left wanting to understand more about Salter and the doctor’s motivations, and the extent of and reasons for the cloning.

Though Noel Coward wrote around forty plays, this is one of only a handful that are regularly produced today. This production originated in Bath and after a short tour is heading to the West End, which the last production left only five years ago. That was a star vehicle for the return to London of Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. Now its Jenifer Saunders’ turn.

Writer Charles Condomine decides to hold a seance at his home as part of the research for his next book. He invites local medium Madame Arcati to conduct it, and friends Dr and Mrs Bradman as guests to join him and his second wife Ruth. On the night, the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira appears. Only Charles can see and hear her, but others can sense her. She hangs around and becomes a disruptive force in the household. When tragedy strikes, we acquire another ghost and disruption becomes war.

It’s an enjoyable concoction, well staged by Richard Eyre, and well performed, not just by the highly impressive Saunders, but by six other fine actors led by Geoffrey Streatfield – even Anthony Ward’s excellent set gets to perform – but it left me a bit cold. Perhaps this was because it came a couple of days after more substantial fare like Albion and Death of England, though I can’t help comparing it with the Old Vic’s Present Laughter, where they breathed new life into the piece. This seemed dated, somewhat conservative and perhaps overly reverential.

It’s a Coward play I hadn’t seen before and for this reason, plus Saunders in fine comic form, it was worth the visit, at suburban rather than West End prices!

Death of England

No other art form could tell this story so well. It would have nowhere near the same impact on screen, big or small, or on the page. Clint Dyer & Roy Williams’ one-man monologue takes you hostage at close quarters, and Rafe Spall inhabits his character Michael in a towering performance of energy, passion and playfulness.

Michael is a lovable Londoner. He loves his mum, but worships his dad, who has a flower stall in the market. He’s a bit contemptuous of his sister. His best friend Delroy is black. Football is his game and the family team are Leyton Orient – and England, obviously. These are open, warm-hearted people, salt of the earth. We see the best of them. Then they are confronted by a political choice and a resurgent England head for the World Cup and for some patriotism becomes nationalism and racism and we see the worst of them.

Rafe Spall prowls the cross-shaped platforms, with almost every member of the audience in touching distance, making eye contact with virtually all of them. There’s no set as such, but the design team cleverly integrate the enclosed space with lighting and sound, with objects left all over the auditorium that Michael uses to illustrate his story. His character engages with us, banters, cheekily. It’s funny and charming, until Michael has a meltdown at a funeral when it becomes angry and passionate and incredibly powerful. These people have been used by other more powerful people, which has made some of them ugly.

I’ve long admired Roy Williams’ writing and here, with co-writer Clint Dyer, his ear for natural dialogue shines once more. Dyer directs too, and his visceral staging, and Spall’s extraordinary performance, create this testosterone-fuelled world, bringing alive the unseen characters and propelling the personal story and its socio-political parallels. I was enthralled and captivated for 100 minutes.

It was a co-incidence that I had returned to see Mike Bartlett’s Albion the night before and I was struck by how much they seemed like companion pieces. Michael and Albion’s Audrey couldn’t be more different, but they are affected and infected by the same thing. Two state of the nation plays, poles apart but resonating in the same world. Theatre doing what it does best, putting up a mirror to help us see and understand the world in which we live.

Absolutely unmissable.